ASLEF Response - Whole Industry Strategic Plan

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ASLEF's response to the GBR Transition Team consultation on its proposals for the Whole Industry Strategic Plan
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ASLEF responded to a consultation by the GBR transition team on its proposals for a Whole Industry Strategic Plan.

 

ASLEF Response: Whole Industry Strategic Plan

February 2022

  1. The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) is the UK’s largest train driver’s union representing over 21,000 members in train operating companies and freight companies as well as London Underground and light rail systems.
  2. The union is pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this important consultation. The right strategic plan for the railway over the next three decades is vital if we are to achieve the objectives of connectivity, environmental sustainability and a railway to be proud of, fit for the twenty-first century.
  3. ASLEF agrees with one of the key headlines in the proposal, which is that the railway should operate ‘in the public interest’. We have long campaigned for a fully publicly owned and operated railway for precisely this reason. Any system which allows for private profit to be made from this essential public service is not, in our view, operating in the public interest.
  4. The union is concerned about the statement early in the consultation document that no additional investment will be considered as part of this plan. Without investment we will not have a railway fit for the future, able to achieve the level of connectivity and environmental sustainability that we need to see.

 

Strategic objectives

  1. ASLEF believes that the strategic goals for the railway should include: An integrated, publicly owned and operated railway; a service that is affordable for both passengers and freight customers; efficient services that connect people and places; a focus on health and safety; high-quality employment for rail staff; full electrification – playing a key role in tackling the climate crisis, and a contribution to economic regeneration.
  2.  The union recognises that several of these objectives do match the objectives listed in the plan proposal. We would like to see a strategic priority including health and safety, and working with rail workers through their unions. A safe railway is safe for both workers and passengers, and must not be something that becomes a second thought or can be in any way affected by prioritising profits.
  3. We are also concerned about the focus on reducing journey times. While it would be ideal to have good, fast connections between towns and cities, the rail journey time is not the immediate priority for many communities. What is needed first is the links to enable the journeys to be made possible at all, particularly between towns and cities outside of London and the South East, before the speed of individual journeys is prioritised. For example in the North West, the Department for Transport has announced ‘shorter journey times’ between Liverpool and Manchester but to achieve this, the proposals mean services would no longer stop at Newton-Le-Willows station, cutting off passengers in the St Helens area for the sake of a few minutes’ off the journey time between the cities.
  4. Some of the objectives in the plan are in conflict with other proposals, including the Integrated Rail Plan in its current form and the HS2 Crewe to Manchester proposals. What we need to ensure the long-term future of our railway is a plan that connects communities and doesn’t leave anyone behind. By reducing the Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 commitments down to a collection of cheaper measures, there may be results such as shorter journey times in the very short term but serious damage to the railway and to connectivity in the longer term. The union believes that this must also be considered as part of the WISP as mistakes made for short-term gain could take a long time and lot of additional (wasted) money to rectify.

 

Meeting the needs of passengers and customers

  1. Passengers and communities need to be connected in order to thrive. ASLEF believes that the main priority under this element of the plan must be to increase the connectivity between people and communities. In terms of rail this means fully completing projects such as the re-opening of branch lines, Northern Powerhouse Rail and other works which provide better links. It also means running a timetable that responds to passenger needs and allows for sufficient freight paths to grow the use of rail freight across the country. The railway should also be considered as part of a broader transport picture and integrated with local connections such as bus and active travel routes.
  2. The benefits of this kind of well connected and linked up system are many. A healthier country will result from less car use leading to improved air quality. Health benefits will also be secured from the increase in active and multi-modal travel by passengers. Allowing more freight to be moved on rail, and providing the infrastructure to allow electrified rail freight, will bring yet more benefits in terms of the environment. Economically, better connected communities will also reap rewards including improved access to employment, education and training; a reduction in social isolation, and opportunities for leisure travel by public transport.
  3. The growth in leisure travel that has already begun on the railway is an opportunity area for the WISP to deliver for passengers and communities. The railway is a natural way to travel for leisure, as links to larger cities make it easier to attend events and cultural institutions. It should also be possible to travel between towns and cities more locally in order to socialise and have a varied life. The plan can address this by committing to reopen branch lines, provide the infrastructure required to run frequent services between towns and cities, and to ensure that the timetable reflects this leisure growth. Commuter rail will of course continue to be important, but the timetable must reflect the increase in demand for services later into the night and at weekends. At the moment there are many lines which are very poorly served at these times and this is directly contributing to people using cars instead of taking the train.
  4. Any timetable changes must be thought about carefully, with no resorting to removing stops from routes, or leaving communities out all together. They must also be worked through with regard for rail workers to ensure that all workers are consulted – through their unions – and that the timetables provide safe and fair employment as well as a good service for passengers and communities.
  5. During the pandemic when fewer passenger services were running, the rail network allowed for more freight paths, many with longer and heavier trains than had previously run. The success of these rail freight movements during the pandemic demonstrates the benefits of providing plenty of timetable space for freight, and this is something which should be continued into the future. Supermarkets including Tesco publicly praised rail freight and cited the use of rail as the reason their shelves remained stocked. Rail freight also moved medical supplies including PPE and vaccination doses around the country and demonstrated that it is a vital service. In order to ensure that there are suitable paths for freight into the future, we need to increase infrastructure capacity. A potential conflict here is the aim of increased line speeds: Higher speeds mean more space is needed between trains which will potentially have a negative effect on capacity on an already-congested network.

 

Delivering financial sustainability

  1. ASLEF believes that a railway that is based on financial gain will never be the railway we need to see to serve communities, passengers and freight customers in the public interest. The railway is a public service. It should be run for public good, for social and industrial goals, and not for profit or to make money. These aims will always be in conflict and passenger service and safety suffer as a result.
  2. With rail operated in the public sector and for the public, it remains important to secure the financial sustainability of the system. ASLEF does not accept, however, that public money should not be used to invest in and to operate the railway as a public service. At the moment money is lost from the system to privateers’ profits both at train operating company level and to rolling stock companies. This loss could be prevented – and the money re-invested into the railway as a public good – if profits were not allowed to leave the system.
  3. Other costs such as any future regulatory setup must also be considered an essential part of the public service and therefore funded centrally by the government. If private operators are to continue to exist on the railway, they must not be forced to pay for their own regulation as this kind of increased cost will only lead to a lesser service provided to passengers.
  4. Financial stability also relies on proper planning and ensuring that projects are fully completed. When projects are cancelled part way through – such as the Great Western electrification – mitigations are then required (in the GWR case bi-mode trains which can use both electric and diesel power). These mitigations cost more. While the cost may be under a different budget heading, the overall impact is public money spent which did not need to be. The only way to avoid this is to invest properly, deliver projects properly and avoid any part measures which won’t stand the test of time.
  5. Future proofing of infrastructure and investment projects is also an important way to keep money in the system and ensure that it is not wasted. The current HS2 proposals to build a station above ground in Manchester instead of underground demonstrate this perfectly. The underground option may cost more in the immediate term, but it will open up a vast amount more opportunity in the future, both in terms of extending the high-speed railway and providing development land and economic opportunity above ground.

 

Contributing to long-term economic growth

  1. The railway has a proud history of contributing to economic growth and prosperity from its very earliest origins in the nineteenth century. Well-connected communities and countries function better, are more resilient and provide better opportunities. In order to continue this benefit, the railway must be fully integrated with other modes of transport and link together communities right across the country.
  2. While the union understands why the government wants to save money, we do not agree that this is a reason to look for the cheapest options when it comes to providing a public service fit for the twenty-first century and beyond. Growth does not come from cuts; growth comes from investment. The priority of this plan should first and foremost be to invest to grow the railway. Infrastructure and services cannot rely on a ‘customer base’ to build them, it is imperative that government takes the lead and brings forward more infrastructure, better services and an attractive proposition to get passengers onto the railway.
  3. Part of the funding for the railway currently comes from passenger ticket revenue and it is expected this will continue (though the union would be supportive of a proposal to make public transport free and funded completely from taxation). In order to increase passenger ticket revenues, rail fares must become more affordable. With the cost of living rising at a rate not seen for several decades and a key growth area for rail being leisure travel, passengers simply will not be able to make the choice to travel by rail if it is not affordable. Fares must be simplified and set out with an aim of attracting passengers onto the railway, rather than as a direct economic benefit. If fares are affordable and bring more passengers onto the railway, there will then be a net benefit to the economic situation, which can be reinvested to further grow the network.
  4. Planning laws also have an impact on the development of the railway. Where new projects and line re-opening projects are being considered, the government also has the ability to use its planning guidance to support these projects. Rail freight is a particular beneficiary of planning guidance changes. For example, where freight depots are proposed in urban areas these can make a significant contribution to improving air quality and congestion (a reduction in the number of HGVs required) but there must be frameworks for permission to be granted so that the benefits can be realised. Rail freight has already shown that it benefits the economy in multiple ways so this should be an easy priority for government.

 

Levelling up and connectivity

  1. The government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda needs to move from rhetoric to reality. Rail has an important part to play in this. The WISP should include plans to increase services, add capacity and run services to every community in every part of the country. ASLEF is concerned that several current plans and projects will do the opposite of this. The Manchester Recovery Taskforce proposals, for example, suggest reducing congestion in the Castlefield Corridor area by removing services from towns across the North West of England. This is clearly not compatible with aims to level up every city, village and town in every area of the country. ASLEF would like to see a strategic plan which commits to increasing services, not removing them.
  2. Over several decades, there has been a lack of investment in rolling stock fit for the future. Across the country – but particularly outside London and the South East – passengers have long suffered in unsuitable, aged trains. Train drivers also suffer from unsuitable cab conditions which can be distracting and uncomfortable due to temperature extremes; poor ergonomics; excessive noise and vibrations, and lack of cleanliness. ASLEF has campaigned over many years for better quality driving cabs, and will not accept refurbished trains on which the cabs have not also been modernised. What the country needs to see in order to level up is newer, modern rolling stock which would be better for both workers and passengers, making the train an attractive and pleasant option for travel.
  3. The ease of connectivity must be a priority for the levelling up agenda. Towns and cities right across the country are lacking good rail links. Many had them prior to the Beeching branch line closures, others were never connected in the first place. With many communities desperate for improvements to infrastructure, jobs and economic prospects, now is the time to resolve these issues. While the union understands that the government has laid out proposals to improve some journey times on specific routes, we do not believe that this is the main levelling up priority. What most people are seeking is simple and efficient ways to travel. This can only be delivered by providing the links between places and the timetables which enable them to be used. A link between a town and a large nearby city, for example, is only useful up to a point if the service only runs until 8pm. Passengers and communities should be able to rely on their rail service – it is the only way it will become the preferred way to travel.

 

Delivering environmental sustainability

  1. ASLEF has placed environmental sustainability at the heart of its campaigning priorities for many years. We know that the railway is already the least carbon-emitting form of transport but it can be better. Top among the priorities is electrification. Electrified rail is cleaner, greener and quicker. Electrified trains are also typically lighter so there is a knock-on financial benefit given their reduced impact on the tracks.
  2. While there are other fuel options for rail including battery and hydrogen power, electrification is the only technology available which can provide sufficient power for a high-speed, long-distance passenger train or for heavy freight services. The union is not opposed to the use of hydrogen or battery power for smaller and infill journeys, though we will not accept old rolling stock units with ‘bolt-on’ hydrogen or batteries that have not had any update to the cab environment.
  3. The union does agree that there may be future fuel options which could also provide decarbonisation to the rail industry. These cannot be relied on as they are not yet fully developed. Rolling stock takes many years to commission and build, and usually remains in services for several decades, so these decisions must be made based on the medium and long term.
  4. In urban areas the railway has a vital contribution to make on environmental sustainability as well as air quality and congestion. Both passenger and freight trains are able to access the very centre of cities much more quickly and with less impact on their surroundings than motor vehicles. It is therefore imperative that, when planning the industry’s priorities, as many services as possible must run into the centre of as many cities as possible. Linking services with onward transport – active travel, buses and light rail for passengers and courier vans and cycles for freight – will also be a vital part of this.

 

Conclusion

  1. The railway is one of the UK’s most important public services. It is something to be proud of but also something that must be nurtured and grown. With the sharp focus of the new WISP and the imperative of the climate crisis, rail is very well placed to become the transport of the future just like it was in the nineteenth century. ASLEF is pleased to see several of the strategic priorities in this consultation but we would like to see a stronger commitment to investing to grow, expanding infrastructure and increasing services and provision right across the country.
  2. The union also feels it is very important that plans are not made in isolation from one another, and that the GBR transition team should work across government to ensure that planning policy supports the railway, that economic incentives can be realised and that integration is not frustrated by a lack of decision making in other areas.
  3. ASLEF’s vision remains for a fully publicly owned and operated railway, run for people not profit and serving every community safely and efficiently.