Paddington station Paddington station. Photo: David McKelvey / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The Tories’ plans for railways is all talk and no action, writes Kieran Crowe

The British public have become very used to the Tory government making grand promises that amount to very little, which is part of the reason why doing this never really hurts them in the polls, but the rapidity with which the big talk about rail earlier this year is collapsing down to less than nothing is an especially terrible case.

Less than six months after the unveiling of the of “Great British Railways” no further details have been released, and the one action taken has been a total flop. The “flexible season ticket” was meant to try and reduce the huge costs and gross complexity of buying train tickets, but passengers’ rights groups have unanimously dismissed them as a pointless gimmick, saving little money for passengers and in some cases being less flexible than the existing system.

The government can dither, but the problems in the sector aren’t going away, many of them are getting much worse. Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are adjusting their timetables for a future in which passenger numbers never recover to pre-pandemic levels, and then never can because the opportunities won’t be there.

The default solution is decline

We have no excuse for being surprised that there are cuts, but you can still be angry. The failure of the Tories to engage with the real problems facing rail are essentially leaving the current broken system of management to relax into a path-of-least-resistance to their financial troubles: save money by cutting services, and staff.

No part of the country is currently safe from reductions in services. From Scotland to Sussex and all the way in-between, routes are being quietly dropped, leaving no realistic alternative transport other than more people in cars. To say this is not getting us of on the right foot toward zero carbon would be an understatement of apocalyptic proportions.

The impact of staff cuts is not to be underestimated: the Rail Industry Recovery Group has proposed job losses so high that one of the four train sector unions – TSSA, usually the least militant of the group – has withdrawn from the industry body. Announcing this shock departure, General Secretary Manuel Cortes described the plans as “like a kamikaze mission”, spelling doom for the services.

Absurdly, even where investments are made, they do so to compete with other services, thus doing nothing much to stop rot. FirstGroup is launching a fast London to Edinburgh service next month – with the baffling name “LUMO” – to try and compete with internal flights. Tickets are heavily subsidized through a huge amount of investment that has been obtain from overseas (mostly Japan, so unsurprisingly it is using Hitachi vehicles).

In principle, this sounds pretty good. The trouble is, FirstGroup will be competing directly with the currently state-owned London North Eastern Railway services, in the same direction. Just to rub salt in the wound, LUMO will be whizzing through many stations in both England and Scotland, at which passengers will have paid far more, to travel shorter distances on much older trains, and subject to the inconvenience of the reduced ticket office services that LNER have just announced. Even this glossy project is in danger of being one step forward and two back.

If the picture on national rail is bad, problems elsewhere are arguably worse. London transport is facing a looming catastrophe as a direct result of the Government threatening to withdraw critical emergency funding before the year ends. The so-called “eastern arm” of HS2 – the extension that would head North and offer significant economic opportunity outside of the South – is rumored to be cancelled next year. Perhaps saddest of all is Eurostar, which the British Government, having sold all public stake in the system a few years ago, has essentially abandoned, and is proposing no potential support to, despite its rather obvious economic, and indeed political significance.

The real solution

There’s no mystery as what needs to be done to fix rail. Britain needs a public rail service with lower fares, and a strategy to get people to use trains in preference to cars. Northern Irish Rail has shown for years that never being privatized in the first place avoided a lot of problems.

The campaigning group We Own It has produced excellent material to show that when components of the British rail system were forced back into public ownership – East Anglian, East Coast and now Northern – improved performance follows soon after.

The next big fight happening will be a confrontation between train companies, on behalf of the government, and transport workers. This is entirely because the Tories have been hoping to use the pandemic as an opportunity as an opportunity to attack workers’ rights and the strength of the unions in the sector. However, more widely, it does seem to me that the time has come to take on the issue of fares, and the fact that the public cannot and should not be made to pay to dig an already-failed system out of its financial hole, any more than the workers should.

The Cop26 conference is now only weeks away, at which the governments of the world are meant to be pledging to radical steps to reduce carbon output and reduce the extent of the climate crisis (given that no one now believes it can be stopped!). Millions of people in this country have expressed a real desire to help see that change happen, and one way to that is to build up a fight for a Peoples’ Railway that provides sustainable transport that is a permanent alternative to fossil fuel-based travel.

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