Simon Calder, aka The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores an important travel issue – and what it means to you.
“Only travel by rail if absolutely necessary and if you travel you will experience severe disruption.” That was a message as early as the 20th century, when railroad strikes were frequent on the political stage. In July 1989, London and much of the wider road network came to a standstill as angry commuters – forced into their cars – scrambled to get to work.
It took three decades for the national rail strikes to resume, but unions are actually backing it. Prepare for a bunch of numbers. I calculated that Saturday 22nd July marked the 30th strike day in 13 months of up to 20,000 members of the RMT working for 14 ship operators contracted with the Department of Transport.
RMT and its smaller brother Aslef, which represent train drivers, say many of its members have not received a raise in four years. (Drivers are making their own overtime ban.) Railroad workers are asking for a non-binding wage increase that takes into account high inflation. Any proposed reform must be negotiated separately with a commensurate salary increase.
But ministers – who are ultimately siding with employers in the dispute – insist that even a modest below-inflation pay offer, now 4% for last year and again this year, is contingent on modernization (or cuts, as the unions see it). They say rail revenue has declined due to the loss of much of the “platform” of seasonal ticket sales since the Covid pandemic.
Train operators and unions have not met since April, and in the three months since then the rail companies (again, according to government policy) have decided to make radical changes such as closing most UK box offices.
Stuck in the middle: long-suffering passengers. Since June 2022, industrial activities have derailed travel plans for tens of millions of train passengers and made travel planning difficult in advance.
I am writing on Saturday afternoon at London Waterloo, the busiest station in the UK, after doing a tour of the country in the days since national rail strikes resumed. And I have some bad news for both sides in this seemingly intractable conflict.
Let’s start with the impact of the strikes. “Travel only by rail if absolutely necessary and if you travel you may experience severe disruption” is indeed the 2023 message from East Midlands Railway. However, on a walk at London St Pancras International this morning, you feel normal: disruption as usual, if you will. Trains depart regularly to Nottingham, Corby and Sheffield.
Thameslink, which shares the station, only runs north to Luton and Bedford, but there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of tourists. And more passengers in the Southeast use High Speed One trains to Kent than on any previous strike day, thanks to one train an hour connecting the capital with Canterbury, Margate and Ramsgate.
“Expect serious disruption”? – completely opposite. With fewer trains operating than usual, rail congestion has eased and services running are more likely to be on time. Friday, a non-strike day in the Southeast, was far more chaotic due to a roadside fire.
Here at London Waterloo, where the South West Railway is a “Is Your Trip Really Necessary?” merchants, many travelers have ignored the advice.
Thirteen months of rail strikes divided the traveling public into three perspectives:
- “I’ll take care of this”: commuters and commuters can easily switch to virtual meetings and work from home on strike days
- “You can’t tell these days”: people who have no choice but to travel by rail and increasingly find they cannot tell much of the difference between a day of industrial activity and disruption as usual
- “Irrelevant”: car owners gave up planning and walked (or rather drove) off the railway
Unfortunately, the last batch included the future for a thriving railroad. At a time when the industry desperately needed to attract “arbitrary” passengers, trains were not as reliable as they were in the 1980s. It was an era of decline: the warring sides of this grueling dispute had created exactly the same conditions.
The traveling public now expects a lousy service. Tracking the cuts will soon begin as we contemplate an amazingly shrinking railroad.