Putting up fares won't raise footfall on the railway

2021-09-01 -
Mick Whelan wearing a suit and ASLEF tie

Mick's Column - September 2021

For those of you who, for a year and a half, have gone about your job each day putting the travelling public – key workers, especially – and our communities, and nation, first – moving food and medicines at the most difficult of times – there are now two major concerns (although I’m sure there are many others, as well).

First, where is the recognition and even a thimbleful of thanks? We should not be surprised, though. Look at how those heroes of the NHS, and other frontline workers, have been treated. Where is an acknowledgement of all those in shops, transport, care, and other occupations too numerous to mention?

Second, let’s contract the industry, putting up fares to make it less attractive to use, whilst talking about regaining confidence and footfall, with faux initiatives around flexi season tickets that are, in reality, more expensive. Reliance on a changing balance
between commuter and business travel, and leisure travel, cannot be relied upon. Because when people can travel abroad again easily they will revert from the ‘staycation model’ unless we can give them a real offer as an industry that is affordable, flexible, and long-term to create long-term demand for rail travel here in the UK.

The odd loss leader is not enough and there is nothing, at this time, arising out of Williams that allows or facilitates the change  from the old mentality – where certain tickets can only be used on certain operators – even though the government now bears the revenue risk. It’s nice that we are calling people passengers again – rather than customers – but, in our experience, that translates into lower, not better, standards. Although we would love to be proved wrong…

We will always recognise the government for stepping in quickly when the industry model – created by them, and which was already collapsing – gave up the ghost under covid, but it is what the people of this country had a right to demand and expect. After all, the people of this country have paid for every inch of rail, every station, and every new coach or train, only to see those railways – paid for by the many – exploited for a private profit by the few. And it remains a people’s railway despite the – now recognised, even by the Tories – abject failure of privatisation.

When we ask what the Prime Minister or Transport Minister mean by keeping the best of the privatised railway we cannot get a definitive answer, other than the snide comment, ‘Well, you lot have done rather well out of it’. If we, as drivers, are the only success of privatisation then we should remind anyone who asks that we paid for everything we have with productivity and  flexibility. No one gave us anything. Why would they?

But then the privateers – who say they believe in a free market – do not believe their philosophy applies to workers who only have our time and skills to sell. Eleven years of austerity, followed by covid… I believe we are going to need all our strength, unity, and resilience for the challenges ahead.

We are still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and the richer nations are going to have to help with the vaccination of the poorer nations or we will never get back to a degree of normality. Normality seems to be the new watchword in our industry with many seeming to think we can return to all pre-pandemic arrangements tomorrow. Well, we can’t. Every process we have put in place, according to the ORR standard that has to be reassessed, and that is to a standard better than ALARP, to see if it should be retained and, of course, we should also have the opportunity to do better if required.

We finally have train and cab cleaning to the standard it should have always been and my belief is that it should remain as covid is not gone. Mandatory wearing of masks should have been retained across all forms of rail and confusion will happen in multi-user stations, especially with  tube or metro connectivity, and we can already see the drop in standards of the travelling public on a daily basis. Let’s not rush back to the old normal, and stay safely behind the curve as we open up, as that is one of the things that will help build passenger confidence in our industry.

I want to pay tribute to Nick Whitehead, who retires after 18 years as District 4 Secretary, and was active at branch, AAD, and DC before being elected district officer. Members owe much to his energy, commitment, and quiet determination.

My thanks have consistently gone to the executive committee, officers, representatives, and staff during the pandemic and they have been wonderful, but each and every one of us is here to serve you, the members. Each and every one of you, as a member of  ASLEF, has served your country, community, and the railway family during the most difficult and trying of times, that are not over yet, so may I take this opportunity to express my thanks and pride in you all.

Please be safe, colleagues…

Mick Whelan

General Secretary