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5 October 2022

Are train strikes more disruptive than government policy?

Rail workers would have to strike for five weeks to cause as much disruption as demand for budget cuts.

By Will Dunn

Writing in the Daily Mail recently Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, complained that commuters across the country would have “their work, travel and lives disrupted” by rail workers taking strike action over pay.

At the end of August, however, a more complete picture of rail disruption was published by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the transport regulator. The ORR’s yearly round-up of data on train operating companies shows that in the last five years they have removed 674,452 train services from their timetables, reducing overall provision by the equivalent of more than 36 days of non-stop strike action.

The disruption is worse than this, however. There’s widespread evidence that many of these lost trains were not unused services, but peak-time suburban and intercity services crucial to workers and businesses.

From December, South Western Railway will cut peak-time services into London Waterloo by almost 12 per cent compared with 2019 levels, and other peak-time services by a third. In Yorkshire, the direct service between Huddersfield and Castleford has disappeared (the 20-mile journey now takes over an hour) and services from Huddersfield to Bradford have been halved. Commuters have lost key services between Sheffield and Leeds, Aberdeen and Inverness, and Shropshire and London.

In many cases, cuts to services made during pandemic lockdowns have been allowed to persist under the excuse that everyone works at home these days. It’s tempting to blame the train companies themselves for this, and they are certainly not without agency. More than one rail policy insider, however, has told me that the companies are caught between unions, which have a mandate to preserve their members’ jobs and pay, and a “micromanaging” government that is politically opposed to union power.

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The single biggest driver of rail disruption in the UK today is therefore not strikes or train companies but, as Shapps wrote in the Mail, his party’s insistence that “the government of Britain is decided by the voters, not Mr Lynch or any other union leader”. By “the voters” he does not mean the 46 million voters in the country, but the fewer than 200,000 members of the Conservative Party who elected Liz Truss.

The government has precipitated this fight with the unions by demanding massive budget reductions from train companies. The rail network was given £16bn in government support during the pandemic, but it now has a £2bn deficit and the scale and speed of cuts required by the Department for Transport has come as a shock to the industry.

In other areas of transport, costs don’t seem to be as much of a problem for ministers – successive Conservative governments have been happy to shoulder the massive cost of a 12-year freeze on fuel duty (followed by a £5bn cut), a £29bn programme of new roads, and tax-free aviation fuel, even on domestic flights.

Beyond a reduction in services, the other factor that prevents people from using the rail network is the cost of tickets, and again this is a political choice. In previous years the Treasury has reduced the subsidy it has to pay for the rail network by pushing up fares using a figure that exceeds even the highest measure of inflation, the Retail Price Index (RPI), on a yearly basis. But with RPI now at 12.3 per cent, such a rise would be hugely unpopular, so the more politically expedient measure is to see if a new and more serious crisis can be precipitated and then restive workers blamed for it.

“This all comes back to the Treasury,” one rail expert told me. While fare hikes are negotiated with the Department for Transport, the perception within the industry is that this is ultimately a decision made in Downing Street.

Such measures are made easier, however, by a Transport Secretary who appears to lack interest in trains. In a speech in June he portrayed rail as a dated technology being superseded by Zoom and declared, “For millions of passengers, rail is now a choice, not a necessity”, as if the train was some sort of low-speed rollercoaster, rather than the affordable transport essential to a properly functioning economy.

[See also: What the UK’s financial crisis means for your pension]

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