New reality will be worse than the pre-covid railway

2022-03-01 -
Array, ASLEF
Mick Whelan wearing a suit and ASLEF tie

Mick's column: March 2022

 

We enter a difficult period for our industry with lies about the biggest investment in railways hiding a true agenda of managed decline. You do not cut your way back to – or price yourself out of – growth, do you?

Fluffy videos asking where the next headquarters of Great British Railways should be do not compensate for the jobs going in other grades through voluntary severance or, going forward, possible compulsory losses.

The coming 3.8% increase in fares is going to push hard-pressed passengers into cars, or other modes of transport, as trains become unaffordable. Pre-covid, we were calling for more staff because of the increase in sexual assaults, anti-social behaviour, and county lines drug-based activity. I do not see how where we are going will protect the travelling public or working people impacted by more than a decade of government-driven austerity.

The new reality is likely to be worse than the pre-covid railway. As lone workers we have a right to have every activity we undertake properly risk-assessed to ensure we are safe and the railway we work is fit for purpose. There may be changing patterns of the way those in other sectors work. We believe that the only way to encourage travel is to offer better, cheaper, services and level up by giving better services where they’ve never been enjoyed.

In January we launched the Invest in Rail to campaign for investment in both the passenger and freight sectors. The economic argument has been made since the advent of the railways in the 19th century in relation to the returns to the local and national economy – and not in the false accounting of running costs versus fare revenue. The initiative by Steve Rotheram to open stations in areas of Liverpool not served in the past is already having benefits in regeneration and economic growth. We will be asking Members of Parliament what they believe they need in terms of rail connectivity and integrated green transport in their constituencies.

At the same time our Better Driving Cabs campaign will be at the forefront of every associated issue we raise. It is time for statutory legislation on maximum and even minimum cab temperatures, crash worthiness, and ergonomics; cabs should be fit for purpose for drivers of all heights and sizes to comfortably and safely operate. Access to toilet facilities on both passenger and freight services – for drivers to be afforded personal dignity and cleanliness – has not been forgotten. We know that the cost argument and the state of flux of the industry will be used against us but these are things that should be in place in the 21st century.

Train drivers are not immune to heating costs, council tax rises, the 5% rise in food costs predicted by Tesco and, after two years when many drivers received no pay increases, we will be seeking proper pay increases but we may need to stand together to achieve it. There seems to be a hardening of attitude by certain employers; let me make it quite clear that we will not be shy in protecting our agreements or with anyone who seeks to abuse the goodwill shown by every one of you during the pandemic. Your support and unity will be the key going forward and I thank you for the support you’ve already shown each other and your union.

The Minister for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, whose plans include local transport, has said that trickle down economics – famously favoured by Margaret Thatcher – doesn’t work. We could have told him that! All the evidence, even during covid, is that the rich got richer – and kept it for themselves, with many avoiding their taxes. Hiking national insurance by 10% in real terms is not going to help – especially whilst giving massive tax breaks elsewhere. People and organisations should not be penalised for being successful but they should pay their fair share.

We need a public inquiry into the £37 billion spent on track and trace even if it’s just to show it was legitimate. Poor and desperate people get sanctioned, fined, and criminalised but when it’s a possible problem on a massive scale Kwasi Kwarteng says people aren’t interested in fraud. I think they are.

The mad rush by this government to pretend covid is over and to return to the normality we all want is worrying. The reasonable safety precautions we have in place should not be removed until it is the right time, by agreement, to do so.

 

Please be safe.

 

In solidarity,

Mick Whelan

General Secretary