Now is the time to plan to regenerate Britain's railways

2021-03-01 -
Array, ASLEF
Mick Whelan wearing a suit and ASLEF tie

Mick's Column: March 2021

Following on from last month, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the government on the swift roll out of the vaccination programme, for the initial injection to, at the point of writing, some 15 million people.

The National Health Service, the military, the volunteers, and all those involved who have made this possible deserve all our thanks and gratitude.

Obviously there is still a long way to go, and everyone will have the second dose, and we cannot get complacent or rush back to normalcy only to end up in lockdown again. There is talk of boosters in the autumn, and testing just to attend theatres or cinemas in the future, so social distinacing and other measures are with us for a long time to come.

Now is the time to plan to regenerate our railways, to encourage football, and to rebuild confidence, not just in the train operating companies, but in all the open access companies, such as Hull Trains, Grand Central, and Eurostar, and those concession-based undertakings such as Merseyrail.

We have been majorly supported to the tune of £800 million a month - some £10 billion by June - which we welcome and for which we are grateful. But let's not be naive; we, along with other sectors, are going to become political economic footballs.

The austerity of the last ten years may well pale into insignificance.

The posturing of the government over TfL is a good example of politics against need or common sense. There is a greater propensity for long-term impact on rail as demand - footfall - could be years before returning to pre-pandemic levels, and the easy option will be to reduce timetables.

I believe capacity makes travel attractive, and will ease Britain's return to normality, but the Treasury and the Department for Transport are unlikely to agree. This was demonstrated by their edict of no pay rise for 2020 and 2021. As with all key workers, why should we be surprised at this treatment from the government?

We are in a unique position of being employed by privateers, on emergency measures agreements, and who we bargain with, but who are dominated by the Treasury, and who do not know their futures, or the shape of the industry, or whate will happen under Williams. One of the unanswered questions is whether any or all of the companies will stay?

Surely now is the time to integrate under one GB rail scheme, one overarching secure pension scheme, an all-line PT&R, with the end to duplication and uncertainty as, at the moment, we seem to have all the disbenefits of the whims of government without any of the upsides and protections.

It is safe to say we are not in Kansas anymore and must be prepared, post-covid, to do what is necessary to protect jobs and conditions.

Please be safe.

Yours fraternally,

Mick Whelan, general secretary