London Bridge picket line, 27 July London Bridge picket line, 27 July. Photo: Cici Washburn

Amid attacks on the unions, and convoluted plans designed to maintain profiteering from rail, we need a real public-transport system, argues Kevin Crane

I mentioned the war, but I think I got away with it

Twenty years on from the crime that was George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq, the event is still infamous in the minds of millions, even as its architects go free, making it an odd choice of comparison for someone wanting to make themselves look good. This is, however, what Network Rail’s chief executive Andrew Haines has gone with regarding the rail strikes, stating that they have won the war but must now ‘build the peace’, as if comparing the unions to Ba’athist Iraq was a great start in some sort of renewed understanding.

Both employers and unions have been declaring victory, and they are as unlikely to both be right as the two sides in any conflict. The reality is that, despite the early hype about the union settlement being put out by the likes of the Trades Union Congress and Momentum, the truth is that the deals were not great, and this is reflected in their subsequent rejection by rail workers. Mr Haines’ tentative declaration of victory just might be as faulty as the infamous ‘Mission accomplished’ that Dubya delivered on that aircraft carrier.

Either way, Haines’ strange choice of metaphor does not speak to vast confidence amongst the bosses. They had had big ambitions of fundamentally weakening both the RMT and Aslef just a couple of years ago, and this hasn’t really happened. Indeed, they know that thousands of workers have taken industrial action for the first time, and many will have learned from the experience. Haines fears that this will make imposing ‘reform’ on them result in guerrilla conflict that will not be easily quelled. And that is only going to add to their woes in trying to manage a deeply troubled railway system … woes that they are also making worse because their own plans for the future are likely doomed to failure.

Great British Railways: definitely not in control

Great British Railways was announced more than two years ago, and since that point, the amount of detail with which the Great British public has been provided, about what it actually is, would scarcely fill the back of a train ticket. There have been promises, indeed Andrew Haines himself has insisted that: ‘Trains will run better, the system will be better value for money, tickets will be easier to buy and when things go wrong you will have just one authority to turn to.’

It’s difficult to argue with such bland statements about good things being good, if that’s what GBR can do for us. The problem is that how GBR does this is not at all clear, particularly since the definition of GBR is complete gobbledygook.

The official position from GBR’s ‘transition team’ (technically the only part of the new organisation that currently exists) is that GBR will provide guidance to the system, but not control the system. This guidance is then applied to a reorganised railway system, in which Network Rail and a set of train operating companies will be radically reorganised … into a GBR Infrastructure Division and a set of public-service contract operators. No, I’m not sure what the difference is, either.

There is one thing the transition team is very clear on: public ownership is being permanently ruled out. Railways under GBR will be an ‘enterprise model’, we are told, that will ‘make use’ of the private sector. For this, read that the rolling-stock companies that make millions for shareholders out of your ticket fares and tax subsidies will continue to do so. Between this, and the aforementioned rehashing of existing structures, it makes most of the other claims that we are being given regarding GBR not much other than buzz phrases and nonsense. Fragmentation in the system will not be resolved by anything that is simply a version of the existing system. The head-spinning complexity and extortionate prices of tickets are not going to get any better if the conflicting commercial interests that create them remain in place. Claims by politicians and rail bosses that these plans put passengers first are simply a lie: they put profits first.

The transition team think they will have their non-changes in place by late next year. This is obviously skating on thin ice, given that the Tory Party is still 50:50 on whether or not they’ll call the general election before then, which is at least likely to result in a Labour government. One of the very few left-wing policies that the present Labour leadership hasn’t binned since 2020 is bringing the railways back into public ownership. This could theoretically contradict the present ‘enterprise’ vision of GBR completely, if Labour has any real strategy for doing so. We have not, however, seen evidence that Labour has any such strategy. Labour has made no public statements about GBR, but the transition team is not shy about saying that they believe Labour will not attempt to change their plans.

Does anyone have any better Ideas?

It so happens that the TUC has actually produced a report into this area that does make both valid analyses and propose worthwhile solutions. It has flaws: ‘Public transport fit for the climate emergency’, as a document, is a bit overlong and heavy going for most people to consider a casual read. More seriously, the length of time it’s been in development means that sudden changes, that is to say the absolute turmoil wrought by the pandemic and the faltering of the globalised economy, has rendered many of the costs and statistics referenced out-of-date. Despite this, it contains much good material.

The scope of the report is well beyond simply talking about the railways – indeed the report references it as ‘heavy rail’ in contrast to light rail/tram – but its chapter on the subject is significantly better than anything we’ve had from GBR’s transition team. The TUC argue persuasively that it is possible to increase rail usage, but only with careful planning and massive investment.

The TUC report is also clear that removing fragmentation from the rail system literally means centrally planning timetables and ticketing, which is what GBR is currently obfuscating. The report goes much further than that, however; it argues that all public transport needs to be planned to work together, including buses and light rail. This should not be an especially radical revelation. In Germany, coordinating the different transport systems enables what is known as ‘taktfahkarten’ (literally ‘rhythmic timetable’) that massively improves passenger experiences by ensuring that trains, bus, and trams are synchronised to make journeys flow better. It can all be done with sufficient will.

The direction of travel needs to change

No one could possibly argue anything is going well on transport in general and the rail in particular. Tory and big-business propaganda is that smashing the unions will magically fix the problems, but really only a very ignorant person could possibly believe this. They do not even have an explanation to that level of sophistication for the decline of bus services.

The reality is that the very British nonsense that public transport is something from which money must be made, rather than on which it should be spent, is in danger of destroying the entire infrastructure. The timing could literally not be worse: the worse public transport is, the more people are falling back onto internal-combustion-engine vehicles. This pleases Tories, with their ideological fixation on private transport. It is likely that some of them convince themselves that this is not the ecological disaster that it obviously is, via some nonsense involving electric cars. These are a non-solution, which would fall apart due to limited supplies of lithium for batteries, if it were not falling apart because an increasingly hard-up populace cannot spend tens of thousand of pounds on vehicles with ten-year service lives.

The fight for a functioning transport system could not be more urgent than it currently is. It’s not particularly mysterious what needs to be done. But if we rely on the leadership we currently have, we just aren’t going to do it. The inseparable link between fighting for a better world and to save the one we have is barely any more clearly expressed than in the urgent need to change course on transport.

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