Britain’s rail system is working OK for once. So the Competition & Markets Authority wants to stuff it up

Choo choo: another busy day at King's Cross. Image: Getty.

The current British rail system*, for the first time in about a century, works quite well. Performance figures and passenger numbers are around all-time highs, and subsidies are around the lowest level since the collapse of Railtrack in 2001.

So naturally, almost everyone in the political sphere, from left to right, is trying to break it again. The recent report from the government’s competition quango, the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA), is the worst of a bad bunch of proposals.

Although some people wilfully obscure it, the structure of the rail network is quite simple. In short, government-owned Network Rail owns and operates the tracks; train operating companies (TOCs) like South West Trains are contracted by the Department for Transport (DfT) to run passenger train services, based on government tenders (“franchises”); and privately-owned freight operators pay a charge to Network Rail to use its tracks.

There are a few complications, of course. Charter trains (steam excursions, football specials) can use the tracks by paying a charge like freight companies do, so long as there’s spare room. And there are special arrangements for services controlled by devolved governments, such as London Overground and Scotrail.

There’s also a weird, hybrid class of passenger train operator, created during the Major government’s privatisation process at the Treasury’s insistence: the “Open Access Operators”, such as Grand Central. These work like charter trains, except instead of using spare room, they are given timetabled paths that take capacity from TOCs. They aren’t under tender to the DfT and don’t have public service obligations, and so can run profitable services without paying the government; as a result, the services they run tend to be cheaper and better than TOC services.

The UK subsidises its railways less than almost anywhere, which means that – although you can pick up bargain off-peak advance fares – peak fares on popular services are high. But this has been true since British Rail, at least (Citymetric pay rates are sadly not quite high enough to warrant the work required to track down per-mile journey rates in pre-WWII days, as fun as that would be). The railway is also running at capacity on many of its popular routes, due to favourable geography, soaring house prices, road congestion, and decades of under-investment prior to the current era.

Together, these factors mean that if you’re a peak-time rail commuter, you probably wanted to punch me when you read this article’s first sentence. When you’re paying a lot of money to spend an hour each way with your nose in someone else’s armpit, the fact that the journey is costing the taxpayer less than ever isn’t much comfort.

If you’re a grumpy left-leaning commuter, your eyes may well turn to the profiteering bastards with their name on your train. Never mind that TOC profits only account for 3 per cent of industry costs; if it wasn’t for those GreatSouthCentralLink bastards, your train would be as cheap and empty and reliable as the Swiss one you once caught on holiday. Abolish them and let the government run the trains!


And if you’re a grumpy conservative commuter, the fault is clearly with the Blairite socialists who brought back British Rail after Railtrack went bust. Fix the Attlee government’s original mistake and bring back the Big Four, running their own private trains on their own private tracks with proper wooden dining cars!

There are politicians on the left and on the right who are willing to lobby each of these views. Both sides are probably wrong, but there are decent arguments in favour of both.

If you’re a rabid Thatcherite ideologue, however, the problem is that the trains weren’t privatised competitively enough. Instead of TOCs, all trains should be open-access, competing against each other day-by-day and train-by-train with no inter-available tickets, like that nice Grand Central train you caught to your meeting in York.

This view is outright silly. As Sir Patrick Brown, permanent secretary at the DfT in the 1990s, said on a documentary broadcast in October 2002: “I don’t think any of us in the Department of Transport thought that open access… could have any part in the privatisation. But you couldn’t say so.” (BBC 4, “Witness to History: Privatising the Railways”.)

The railways aren’t like roads: train and track operators need a close working relationship (whoever owns them); paths are scarce and time-dependent; and boosting frequencies is pointless if trains aren’t turn-up-and-go. It’s worse still for people on less-used routes: the miserable failure of the bus industry outside London shows how badly the “competition plus subsidy for the uncompetitive bits” model works, even without the complications of rail.

It should be very worrying, then – no matter what your political views – that ahead of the Treasury’s rail review, the CMA has published a report which says that the future of rail lies in open access operators.

Like the people who drove the original failed privatisation, the CMA is made up of finance and business people with no transport background. If the government listens to their advice, it will be yet another rail disaster.

*By “British” I mean the system controlled by Network Rail in England, Wales and Scotland. The Northern Irish system is very different and not geographically connected to the rest of the network; London Underground and various regional metro/tram systems are also run and operated separately.

 

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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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