If you haven’t tried travelling any significant distance in this country recently, then I wouldn’t recommend it. OK, it’s probably fine if you have a car and don’t mind driving. And, thanks to the generosity and foresight of Britain’s new prime minister in the Budget he announced when he was chancellor last autumn – delivered, as it happens, just days before Cop26 – internal flights actually incur lower taxes than ever. Hilarious.
If you’re the kind of person who cares about their carbon footprint, though, I have some bad news: Britain’s trains are about as bad as they’ve ever been. Avanti West Coast – the company that, in a particularly bracing bit of private competition, is responsible for trains between England’s first, second and third cities, plus Scotland’s largest, and Liverpool too – has slashed its timetable in an attempt to cut costs. As if that weren’t enough, it’s cancelling an apparently random selection of those services that survived the cull, too.
Those passengers who somehow succeed in buying a ticket, despite the company website’s oft-repeated claims it doesn’t have any, tell tales of clawing their way on to trains hours later than promised, only to find the carriages are like cattle trucks. On one occasion, passengers alighted at a semi-rural station to find the gates locked and themselves effectively imprisoned. Has this collapse in service quality been accompanied by any reduction in the frankly comical prices? Lol, as the kids say.
All this, of course, assumes we’re talking about a day on which there isn’t a strike, and in the immediate future there aren’t many of those. Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ union (RMT) who work for Avanti, plus 13 other train operating companies, are planning walk-outs on 5, 7 and 9 November. Those who work for Network Rail will be out on Monday 7 November, too. Separately to all that, those who work for Transport for London and London Overground – which is contracted out to Arriva – will be out on Thursday 10 November instead. Honestly, I’d stay at home.
The reason rail workers are striking is, well, the same reason that just about every other heavily unionised bit of the public sector workforce is striking these days: the cost of living is soaring, pay isn’t, and under those circumstances who wouldn’t strike? There’s more: since the franchising system collapsed in 2020, more up-front funding for rail services has come from the state, so the Treasury has put pressure on train operating companies to cut costs, by bearing down on service frequency, staff numbers, and terms and conditions. This has proved counterproductive, because the entire, understaffed network runs on employee goodwill in the form of willingness to do overtime. And now there isn’t any.
That’s not to say the operators themselves are blame-free: Avanti, especially, has been dragging its way along the bottom of the league tables for both punctuality and customer satisfaction for some time. (This did not stop it paying out a small fortune in dividends this summer.) But it’s hard to see how things get better without an injection of government cash, and that is exceedingly unlikely to be forthcoming.
Things could be worse, though. To publicise the strikes, the RMT has released its debut single “Enough is Enough”, featuring musicians from Dexys Midnight Runners, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream. Why not listen, to while away the hours waiting for a train that never comes?