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Labour's cynical plan for the railways would be the worst of all possible worlds

Railway Strike 
Labour have promised an eye-watering 33 per cent cut to regulated fares and free rail travel for under-16s from the start of next month Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS /AFP 

Their unaffordable programme would put vested interest groups ahead of passengers

From today and until New Year’s Day, commuters who use South West Trains will have a tough time of it. A strike by the RMT union means that only about half of all scheduled services will run in the next month. 

The strike is all about the industry’s running sore – the introduction throughout the country of driver-operated doors on trains. Unions are unhappy about the perceived threat to railway jobs and, despite assurances from the safety regulator as well as the fact that the London Underground has been safely running on this basis for years, insist that safety of passengers is being put at risk.

Meanwhile, in the general election campaign, Labour have promised an eye-watering 33 per cent cut to regulated fares and free rail travel for under-16s from the start of next month. This represents a radical departure from the thoughtful approach that shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald has brought to the debate over the future of rail so far in his tenure. Although beholden to his leader’s obsession with nationalisation, McDonald has led a policy review that has addressed the challenges honestly and consulted stakeholders extensively.

Which is why we may have to file today’s intervention under “Free money for headlines”, in the same folder as last week’s announcement of £60 billion for the so-called Waspi women. McDonald told Radio 4 this morning that the money to fund this largesse will come from road tax receipts. But that still means that that money is not unavailable to spend elsewhere. More importantly, £1.5 billion on subsidising fares is £1.5 billion that won’t be spent on other parts of the industry that need it more.

The move is overdue, McDonald said, because of the need to affect a major modal shift, to get people out of their cars and onto trains. But the proposed fare change is not being phased in over time – it will take effect in precisely 29 days. Which means we can expect to see that modal shift happen at the same time. 

The regulated fares affected are largely season tickets and peak fares. Which means all these extra passengers who are leaving their cars at home will have to squeeze onto already overcrowded commuter services. But there was no mention of providing extra carriages (or the cost of that) to accommodate all these new customers. So perhaps the problem of over-crowding is exaggerated…?

As with free tuition fees and free prescriptions, a massive extra subsidy for rail fares would disproportionately benefit wealthier people; the poorer citizens whom Labour claims to represent are more likely to use the bus, but there was no mention of new money to help them today. 

The rail industry certainly requires massive amounts of investment – and has received it under both Labour and Conservative governments. But few industry leaders would prioritise a further subsidy for season ticket holders. The last Labour government shifted the balance of who pays for passenger services from the taxpayer to the fare payer; this new policy would reverse that shift so that the low-paid non-train user would once again be expected, through his taxes, to subsidise the stockbroker’s journey. Redistribution is just so old hat, comrade…

But even if fares are reduced by a third in January, even if the necessary negotiations with all the franchise owners are successfully concluded in the two weeks between the election and the start of the New Year (spoiler: they won’t be), commuters’ joy and gratitude towards their new government may be short lived. Labour’s manifesto may not have included this latest generous giveaway, but it did include a promise to repeal “anti-trade union legislation”. 

How you define “anti-trade union” depends on your perspective. As a lifelong trade unionist, I see legal safeguards against striking without a secret ballot as pro-union, but in today’s Labour Party we can assume that the term relates to all of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of the 1980s. That would mean the return of secondary picketing or “solidarity action”, where workers can stop work in sympathy with those engaged in a conflict with a different employer. 

This has major implications for the railway industry, which hasn’t seen a national strike since the early 1990s. In fact, under Labour’s renationalisation plans, everyone would be working for the same employer anyway – the government – so even Thatcher’s legislative restrictions wouldn’t stop a Britain-wide strike if management in the south west or anywhere else wanted to introduce a new type of train without the approval of their shop stewards.

And strikes cost the industry money, as well as causing severe upset to the people they’re there to serve: passengers. Labour’s plan is to change the ownership of train-operating companies in order to make them as efficient as publicly-owned Network Rail (cough!), to make strikes easier and more likely and to subsidise the fares of people who can most afford to pay their own way while making no effort to accommodate the thousands of extra passengers those subsidised fares will attract.

Labour might get the 24-hour headlines it longs for, but the railway industry needs a lot more than short-term gimmicks and an appeal to vested interests.

 

Tom Harris is a member of the Expert Challenge Panel supporting the Government’s independent Rail Review