How to level up and decarbonise this country

2021-12-01 -
Array, ASLEF
Mick Whelan wearing a suit and ASLEF tie

Mick's column - December 2021

In previous columns, I have held out the hope - albeit somewhat vainly - that, as part of the United Kingdom's vision for the future, and a just transition for our children and grandchildren, this diverse and disparate land could become a green example - through rail and integrated transport, in the year we hosted COP26 - to the rest of the world. Then I woke up after spending days in Glasgow passionately arguing the economic and social case for mass transit, for passengers, and for freight, and we end up with watered-down commitments in relation to getting to 1.5°C and talk of 'phasing down' as opposed to 'phasing out'.

The number of paid lobbyists was frightening but the huge number of young people, activists, trade unions, and civil society wanting - and demanding - change was really very heartening. Lowering the tax on short domestic flights just before a conference on climate change set the tone and the watering down of the wording of the main commitments, particularly by Saudi Arabia at the end, smacks of a missed opportunity, not of hope. 

It was always going to be difficult without Russia and China present but 200 countries sending out a joint message could have had an impact. But even Australia, early in the two weeks of COP26, was more cop out than opt in.

So no big rail announcements at COP26. That's fine, because we have the Integrated Rail Plan to look forward to - or maybe not, as there appears to be a lot of leaking going on and the final phase of HS2 from Birmingham to Leeds seems set to be scrapped. So much for Mr Johnson's pledge 'to be the Prime Minister who does for Nothern Powerhouse Rail what we did for Crossrail in London' - a speech that also had 'a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route'.

It will be impossible to decarbonise the country, or level up in any true way, if this happens and, in a world where only 8% of freight goes by rail what is the rationale here? It is likely that we will see, according to the leaks, previously promised electrification projects and some lines reopened but nothing on the scale of what was promised or what those of us who work in this industry know is required!

Whilst we welcome any investment - even that which has been promised before - short-term schemes that give marginal benefits are not the solution. The danger is that it undermines the case for investment, going forward, because the government can say 'we have already done this'. After 11 years of successive Conservatives governments' deliberate policy of austerity now, we know, is the time to be bold.

The past 18 months have been difficult for everyone but every train driver in every sector has been more than a key worker and a hero in keeping people and food and freight and medicines running. Every representative, local company council, and branch, along with our officers and executive committee, have been immense and played their part and I would like include our head office staff for their efforts. May I take this opportunity, as a grateful and proud general secretary, to thank you all.

Have a great Christmas and a happy and safe and peaceful New Year.

Yours in solidarity,

Mick Whelan

General Secretary