It seems apt in this season of goodwill that for once the forces of labour and capital in the railway industry have agreed on something. It’s just a shame that this consensus had to be in the form of the train operators and the rail unions coming together to prevent anyone letting the train take the strain today.
First, we have the brothers and sisters of ASLEF, who, for the third year running, have decided that they are not getting enough extra money to shake off their hangovers and drive Tube trains on Boxing Day. Hours and hours of talks and the intervention of ACAS, the conciliation service, have yielded nothing but intransigence and an exasperated Underground management. The union is seeking an extra £250 for each of its members to work on December 26, while Howard Collins, London Underground’s chief operating officer, says that the bank holidays are already included in the existing agreement.
As a result, London shoppers will have to use the buses, which are operating normally, and in a way they are fortunate that they will still have access to some form of public transport on this busy day. Indeed, from the experience of previous years, there will be some Tube trains running, too, since not all ASLEF members will come out, and some drivers belong to other unions.
On the national rail network, however, the situation is even worse. With just a few exceptions, such as on the high speed line between St Pancras and Ashford, and services to Gatwick Airport, there will be virtually no services today, in common with previous years.
Yet 30 or 40 years ago, in the days of British Rail, there was almost a full Sunday service on most lines on Boxing Day. Today, the privatised train operators cannot be bothered to provide any trains at all. A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies told The Times last week: ‘Opening on Boxing Day would mean keeping the whole network staffed and running for a fraction of the number of passengers who normally travel, and it would be taxpayers that would pick up much of this cost.’
Oh, so that would be all the shoppers heading for the post-Christmas bargains, the football supporters going to what are usually well-attended fixtures and all those seeking to visit relatives, a Boxing day tradition. None of them would be taking the train, of course. Or just perhaps, as Phil Haigh of Rail magazine put it, ‘There is clearly a demand for travel on Boxing Day – you only have to see the queues in the busy shops and shopping centres. Some of them, like the Metro Centre in Gateshead and Meadowhall in Sheffield, even have their own stations.’
Neither can the Government be absolved of blame for this situation. Ministers could quite easily specify in train operators’ contracts that Boxing Day should be run, even if, as ATOC suggests, there would be a cost to the taxpayer. Yes, that would involve knocking a few union and management heads together, but surely with train travel now so popular, is that too much to ask?
Christian Wolmar’s book on rail privatisation, On the Wrong Line, has recently been made available on Kindle via Amazon, £6.