Christmas is of course a time for believing in miracles – but when the government is reduced to publicly pleading with the RMT union to bring out its altruistic side, it seems more likely that the railway is teetering on the brink of an unfestive abyss. .
New Railways Minister Huw Merriman brought all parties together on Friday in a declaration of intent. But time is running out to avert what will likely be the most damaging strike to date: two 48-hour walkouts at Network Rail and train operators between December 13 and 17, and an overtime ban that will further disrupt services throughout the Christmas period. – until another week of strikes scheduled for early January.
Talks between the RMT, Network Rail – employer of crucial signaling staff – and rail operators must reach some sort of deal by Monday evening, or more rail chaos is assured. An 11 a.m. truce, as the RMT showed last month, is too late to keep trains running. And while paying members to stay home, instead of strike, may appeal in the short term, unions will quickly lose public sympathy if this happens again.
The first strikes are also expected just after the introduction of a new timetable next Sunday, designed to restore more regular intercity trains on Avanti’s west coast and more reliable services on Northern and TransPennine Express. Now, December 11 – a red letter day for Avanti’s promised recovery for many months – looks set to herald another week of chaos. Train drivers could also leave around Christmas: the executive of Aslef meets on Tuesday, armed with new strike mandates.
The industry is well aware of the sensitivities associated with seasonal travel. Passenger numbers are traditionally low compared to daily journeys – but woe to the railway boss who prevents, say, an editor from leaving the capital and returning to the office after Boxing Day. Ghosts of the Christmas Past include headlines about engineering work that delayed or diverted thousands of passengers from central London on December 27. Back in 2014, curiously, such chaos led to a parliamentary inquiry; this year, it was barely a morning’s work for Avanti.
At one point in December, with the conflict raging for a year, passengers in despair and experienced insiders privately admitting they are not risking the train, the immediate outlook looks bleak.
But there are reasons to think that the railway can be brought back from the brink. The industry’s finances have long escaped scrutiny in good times; now, according to some, the Treasury tightening is overdone. Passenger numbers are returning to pre-Covid levels outside the major suburban belts – and more businesses want those reluctant travelers back.
Overall rail traffic is around 80% of 2019 levels, although many people are being discouraged from taking the train. And if industrial relations poisoning is the main reason for the chaos at Avanti and elsewhere, with staff no longer working the overtime operators need, the spread of love – and a little money – could solve the larger problem of the railroad? Revenues may be £6m a day below 2019, but the whole dispute could be settled over the kind of money lost on a dodgy PPE contract, or a fraction of the losses from a mini budget misjudged.
In the short term, business leaders believe few employees, with bills piling up and gifts to buy, are willing to waive strike wages or the overtime ban, in a season with many double salary opportunities.
Long-term net-zero ambitions hinge on a shift to electrified transport – and trains far exceed cars or buses on this front, let alone planes. On Thursday, underscoring the point, the government pledged to continue spending £44billion on the railways during the next ‘period of control’ from 2024 to 2029.
The ghost of Christmas yet to come cannot point a bony finger at the railroad grave. Retrieving the Christmas present, however, will require dramatic adjustments on both sides.