Dither, delay and decline: Can rail get back on track?


Despite expectations that it will play a key role in transport decarbonisation, the rail sector is struggling, with strikes, passenger numbers that are well below pre-pandemic levels, and a broken enhancements pipeline. The railways seem to be going from bad to worse.

Of many problems facing the sector at the moment, the two main ones are low passenger numbers following the pandemic and ongoing strike action. The two are closely related.

First the good news. Three days of strikes that were set to begin on Saturday were called off at the last minute, with RMT leader Mick Lynch claiming that the union’s ‘strongly supported industrial campaign has made the rail employers see sense’.

The RMT said it ‘will now enter into a period of intensive negotiations with Network Rail and the train operating companies’ (TOCs) but stressed that ‘the current dispute remains very much live’, and it is not easy to see how the various tangled disputes across the railway will be resolved.

Members of a number of unions employed by both TOCs and infrastructure operator Network Rail are striking over a range of issues from pay to job security to other changes in terms and conditions.

Ministers, Network Rail and TOCs want to bring in ‘reforms’ while also offering pay increases that get nowhere near the current double figure inflation. The fact that Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines insists that an 8% rise over two years is fair while claiming a £590,000 annual salary probably doesn’t help.

Ministers argue that reforms and below-inflation pay increases are needed because of the money the Government provided, in the past, to keep services running during the pandemic.

Speaking to MPs last month, the then transport secretary, Anne Marie Trevelyan, appeared confused about whether the £16bn the Government spent keeping the sector going ‘has to be funded’, i.e. recouped, or is merely at risk of being replicated in future. In reality, neither is very likely.

While, the pandemic has clearly had a major impact on travel patterns and therefore rail patronage and revenue, particularly with many workers realising how effectively they can work from home, recent Department for Transport (DfT) data suggests a stronger recovery than the bleak picture painted by ministers and TOCs.

The DfT publishes estimates of the number of passenger journeys that have taken place over a rolling seven-day period, as a percentage of pre-pandemic patronage. During the last week for which (broadly) reliable figures are available, i.e. the week before the October half-term holiday, the percentages were in the nineties. While the numbers go up and down, this compares with single figures during lockdowns.

In the week ending Saturday 15 October, patronage was assessed to be 95% of pre-covid levels. However, RMT members were on strike on 1 and 8 October, meaning that any rolling seven-day period before the 15th included a strike day, with the effect that the comparative percentages were between 75% and 89%.

Further evidence of a tendency to talk down the railway sector came from the approach of some TOCs to the strikes that were to have begun on Saturday. While many advised that passengers should travel only if absolutely necessary on the three days of actual strikes, some also applied this advice to the days after each strike day, with South Western Railway (SWR) warning passengers off for six consecutive days.

While discouraging its customers from using its services, SWR has also said that it will make only very minor improvements to its cut-down services in December, claiming that patronage remains at around 69% of pre-pandemic levels, with peak travel at only 53%.

There is clearly something of a chicken and egg situation, with ministers and TOCs unwilling to fund under-used services, but infrequent services and overcrowding are unlikely to win passengers back.

While punctuality should benefit from fewer trains on what was a badly overloaded system, it has recently deteriorated. Last week industry regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) reported fewer trains arriving on time and an increase in cancellations compared to the start of this financial year.

The percentage of trains arriving on time at stations was 70.2% in September 2022, compared to 72.6% in April 2022. National freight performance is also at its lowest point for the last five years, the ORR said.

The regulator said it recognised that factors such as extreme weather, issues with train company staffing and industrial action have impacted the network beyond Network Rail’s control but noted that delays attributed to Network Rail had increased in all five of its regions.

The subject of train company staffing is closely related to the poor industrial relations climate. While ministers have said that a collapse in the number of drivers employed by firms like Avanti West Coast choosing to work rest days is a form of unofficial industrial action, unions have pushed back against this interpretation.

Mr Lynch put the situation down to the fact that, as he put it, ‘the railway has a chronic shortage of staff and runs on goodwill and overtime’.

Often one TOC stands out as worse than the others and currently Avanti, which runs services from London through the Midlands and north west England as far as Glasgow, fills that role – although northern politicians complain that other firms also provide poor service.

Despite being unable to run anything like a reliable service, mainly due to staff shortages, Avanti was last month awarded a six-month extension to its franchise, to the dismay of passengers and many politicians.

Lord Patrick McLoughlin, chair of Transport for the North (TfN) and a former Tory transport secretary, subsequently called on ministers to urgently intervene to help end what TfN called the current unacceptable levels of performance on the rail network in the region.

The sub-national transport body pointed out that in the summer, 62% of Northern services arrived on time and only 54% of services run by Transpennine Express, with recent figures showing little improvement.

In July, only 60% of Avanti’s Euston to Manchester services arrived on time, and just 72% in September, despite the firm moving to a one train per hour service in August.

Lord McLoughlin said he wants to see TOCs given the freedom to negotiate a solution to rest day working by themselves, highlighting another issue with the rail industry. The system appears to many as a chaotic mix of national rules and fragmented services, neither fully within the state’s control nor fully privatised.

Mr Lynch argues that the starting point for an efficient railway fit for the 21st century is removing private companies and having a fully-joined up nationalised railway system, consulting, of course, with the rail unions.

But the future shape of the rail industry is almost impossible to predict, with attempts at structural reform beset by political chaos and economic stagnation. The solution proposed by the last transport secretary but one, Grant Shapps, is something called Great British Railways (GBR) a model that would include private operators, albeit with significantly more public sector central control under an ‘overarching guiding mind’.

But GBR is currently little more than a brand. My Shapps' successor, Anne Marie Trevelyan, since replaced herself, recently told MPs that there would not be time in the current parliamentary session to legislate for GBR.

Ms Trevelyan unwittingly gave another indicator of the impact of political instability on the rail industry when she predicted that rail minister Kevin Foster, since replaced, would become a ‘deep expert’.

One constant throughout the ministerial replacement service seems to be new legislation to introduce minimum service levels on the railways during strikes but, with operators currently running around 20% of trains on strike days, it’s not clear it would do anything other than cause the workforce to withdraw any lingering good will.

Looking slightly further ahead, there is a very real prospect of a Labour government in two years’ time, with the party currently committed to renationalisation.

As Transport Network has reported, another crisis the rail industry is facing is one of accessibility, again driven by a shortage of staff, although in this case it is entirely intentional. The removal by firms such as GTR both of guards (or their equivalent) and station staff has led to a situation where passengers who need assistance to board and alight from trains are unlikely to get it at many stations across the network, at least at short notice.

In the summer, campaigners led by former UN Rapporteur for poverty Professor Philip Alston wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), claiming that the Government had ignored a warning from the EHRC three years earlier about the impact of de-staffing on disabled passengers.

They described rail accessibility as being ‘in a state of national emergency’ and warned that plans for mass ticket office closures would play into ‘an escalating human rights crisis on Britain’s railways’.

Last month, Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee member Matthew Smith resigned, warning that the mass closure of ticket offices would worsen a situation in which staffing policies already discriminate against disabled travellers.

Ms Trevelyan subsequently told MPs that she understood the ‘real concern’ around the accessibility for all agenda. She said she wanted to see ‘the workers at stations’ either behind the glass sorting out tickets…or fundamentally supporting people on the platform’. Ms Trevelyan has since been invited to carry out her functions elsewhere.

Another area where both political uncertainty and the continued squeeze on government spending impact the rail industry is investment in improving the network. New routes such as HS2, East West Rail and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) seem to be under almost constant threat of being scaled back, while funding for the Rail Network Improvements Pipeline has already been subject to a £1bn cut over five years and this annual document has not been published for three years and counting.

Last Year’s Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands opted for a version of NPR priced at £17bn, as opposed to the plans costing £43bn put forward by TfN. During her brief spell as prime minister, Liz Truss promised to build the scheme ‘in full’, but ministers have now identified that pledge as one of her many mistakes that her successor will put right.

No 10 has now confirmed that the Government will stick to the cut-down version after all, causing northern political and business leaders to call out ‘a cycle of never-ending broken promises on transport investment’.

Similarly, where Mr Shapps put the completion of East West Rail in doubt and Truss seemed to ride to its rescue, that rescue now seems as ephemeral as her premiership.

And despite the obvious potential for rail to play a role in the decarbonisation of transport, the Government’s plans for electrification of the network seem to be going at a snail’s pace.

Chris Todd, director of Transport Action Network, compares the constant prevarication over rail schemes such as improvements to Ely Junction in Cambridgeshire with ministers’ enthusiasm for splashing cash on roads: ‘All we've had from politicians is dither and delay, while road schemes like the A14 and A428 are waived through.’

It’s not all bad news. In the absence of substantive improvement, ministers highlight gimmicks like the restoration of lines axed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s.

But, while the odd new line here and there is no doubt appreciated by those who will benefit from it, the small scale of the endeavour serves as a reminder of how hard it is to restore something once you have let it go.

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