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Rail - a crisis created by government

Transpennine Express train in York, en route to Liverpool Lime Street, March 2022. At the end of May this year it was taken away from its operator, FirstGroup, and into public control as an “operator of last resort”. Photo Bradley Caslin/shutterstock.com.

Rail workers should ensure that the strong workplace organisation that has been developed when they built support for their campaigns of industrial action is not dissipated...

Britain’s railways continue to face an uncertain future. Industrial disputes with drivers’ union Aslef and with the main rail union RMT are still ongoing in the face of the government’s refusal to allow the train operating companies to offer an acceptable pay deal that wouldn’t mean rail workers giving up hard-won conditions.

The Sunak government is not only engaged in attacking both rail workers and the industry within which they work, but is also clueless about railways in general including the purpose of them.

Rail workers are rising to the challenges from Sunak. On 14 June, Aslef published the results of the 13 ballots anti-trade union laws force them to hold after every six months of industrial action. That’s a ballot for every train operator that provides passenger services under contract to the Department for Transport (DfT).

Train drivers delivered impressive and conclusive voting figures to continue their disputes. For example, in Cross Country, over 85 per cent of members voted, with over 95 per cent of those voting for more strikes.

Mick Whelan, Aslef General Secretary, said: “Train drivers are sick to the back teeth of their employers and the government failing to negotiate in good faith, and blaming drivers for their inability to manage services and the rail industry effectively.”


The Aslef results follow the announcement in May that RMT members had also voted overwhelmingly to continue strikes, and both unions took strike action during June resulting in very few trains running across England.

Pay deals have been achieved with those train companies controlled by the Welsh and Scottish governments, and also Merseytravel. That underlines just how much the Sunak government’s political strategy is designed to undermine both the rail industry and those who work in it.

“Train drivers are sick to the back teeth of their employers and the government failing to negotiate in good faith…”

June 2023 saw RMT members in Scotland, having had annual pay rises, settle for a 5 per cent basic pay uplift with the lowest paid receiving as much as an 8 per cent increase. Aslef is recommending a similar offer to its members. In contrast, many train company workers across England have had no pay rise for 4 years.

The government has recently added another train company to its growing portfolio of publicly owned passenger operators, Transpennine. The company was operated by FirstGroup – heavily criticised for cancelling huge numbers of services daily since the Covid pandemic – leaving the government with no option but to take the contract away.

Too few drivers

Transpennine, operating services across northern England, had procured too many different train types for such a small operator, which meant it required large training commitments for its drivers. It also relied heavily on employing too few drivers, who were expected to work large numbers of rest days and longer days.

Once the company got caught up in the Aslef dispute, goodwill evaporated and drivers stopped working overtime, causing the cancellations. Now the return of the company to public ownership has seen a deal with Aslef that will ease problems for passengers.

Many train operators are now publicly owned under the DfT’s “operator of last resort” policy. And those that are still in private hands are no longer franchises. Instead, they provide train services under contract to the DfT with a guaranteed profit built into the contract.

But the government is in control, determining the level of services. These have been cut back since the Covid pandemic, even though passenger numbers now often exceed pre-pandemic levels – with a huge growth in leisure travel despite the uncertainties created by mismanagement and strikes.

So the demands of the rail unions for the railways to be returned to public ownership and control have been largely realised. Yet the industry continues to be in crisis because control of most passenger services in England lies with Sunak’s government. What is actually needed is for the railways to be under workers’ control, run in the interests of the working class.

Rail workers should ensure that the strong workplace organisation that has been developed out of necessity to build support for their campaigns of industrial action is not dissipated once the disputes have run their course, and that it is used to exert positive influence over the future direction of the railways.

Fragmentation has proved to be the biggest problem created by rail privatisation. The most notable manifestation of this was the timetable fiasco of May 2018, when the lack of what has come to be termed “a single guiding mind” resulted in train services falling apart, and emergency timetables being introduced to keep the trains moving.

The Johnson government decided to address this by creating “Great British Railways” (GBR) which would absorb Network Rail and direct the industry going forward. A GBR Transition Team has been created under the leadership of the Network Rail CEO and Chairman and now employs hundreds of staff.


An expensive public competition was held to determine where GBR’s HQ would be – and the railway city of Derby was awarded this honour.

Except that Sunak has apparently now got cold feet about introducing the necessary legislation to give GBR the powers it needs to function properly. “Not a priority”, “no room in the parliamentary timetable” have been the weak excuses proffered for failing to proceed. Not that GBR was the solution to the industry’s problems, but it would at least have been a step in the right direction.

Sunak’s rail minister, Huw Merriman, dismayed the rail industry at a recent conference when he said, “we must replace diesel trains, ideally without the need for expensive and intrusive overhead lines”.

In its obsession with cutting back on rail spending, the government does not see that instituting a rolling programme of electrification will be the cheapest and most effective way forward in the medium to long term.

The government has form on this. It has delayed parts of the construction of HS2 to save money in the short term, but dramatically increasing the final cost of the project.

‘Fragmentation has proved to be the biggest problem caused by rail privatisation…’

Further woolly government thinking is exemplified by Network Rail’s latest Strategic Business Plan for Control Period 7 (2024-29), published in May. In that report Network Rail said that it will be forced by government reductions in real-term funding to cut back on renewals during this period – which will inevitably result in increasing delays to trains caused by infrastructure failure.

Perhaps more in hope than expectation, the plan also says that safety will be protected! But many rail workers and passengers still remember the days of Railtrack, when safety was relegated in favour of financial imperatives, resulting in a number of serious rail crashes.

Most of the national railway network was built in the 19th century, and many structures are now becoming life-expired, as rail industry jargon has it. For many, detailed information and plans about how they were constructed do not exist.

The recent closure of the strategically important route from Birmingham to Reading for nearly two months perhaps illustrates the potential for future problems. Nuneham Viaduct, built in 1844, which spans the River Thames between Oxford and Didcot, was known to be a problem for years, but maintenance on it was delayed again and again. Eventually, it partially collapsed, forcing the issue. There are likely to be other problems of a similar nature that cause the closure of key routes.

Sunak’s government may well soon be voted out but many rail workers know that the battle for the railways is one that will continue long after Sunak is a footnote in history.