Rail 503: Privatisation’s union-bashing agenda has backfired

An unspoken aim of privatisation was to curb the power of the unions, but instead it has strengthened the hand of many staff, claims CHRISTIAN WOLMAR. Meanwhile, his alter-ego, Mystic Wolmar, peers into his crystal ball at what’s rostered for 2005.

The railway trade unions have been much in the news lately. The ‘party’ held by all Midland Mainline drivers on the Sunday two weeks before Christmas was a very clever ploy to take industrial action without actually having to go through the legislation. The amazing deal obtained by the RMT which sees its members on the Underground get a staggering 52 days off per year has also attracted much criticism.

The unions have also been vociferous in their calls for greater safety at level crossings with ridiculous demands about closing them all, which prompted one signalman to write to me: “I do despair of our general secretary. Why did he not mention the billion safe passenger journeys last year?”

One of the unstated reasons for the privatisation of the railways was to weaken the ability of the trade unions to take industrial action. That thinking was certainly, too, behind the disastrous decision to separate the maintenance from Railtrack.

Well, like many of the aims of privatisation, the original aim has not been achieved and there have been unforeseen side-effects. Train drivers have actually revelled in privatisation; it was the failure of the train operating companies to combine and negotiate together which allowed ASLEF to bid up wages so that train drivers now get a very generous paypacket, equivalent to a junior manager’s salary for what is essentially a blue-collar job, albeit a safetycritical one (though so is bus driving, and their wages are between half and two-thirds of a train driver’s).

But if you are paid like a junior manager, you should act like one. Some of their lesser-paid colleagues on the trains understand that. On the way back after a recent journey from London to Nottingham for a football match, QPR supporters broke into the closed snack bar of the train I was travelling on and stole the beer, frightening a woman steward. At first the manager was going to cancel the train but she realised that turfing 200 football supporters off at Leicester was not a good idea and reinstated it as the stopping service down to St Pancras.

Moreover, she ensured the snack bar was open, selling the remainder of the beer, while warning passengers that any misbehaviour would result in its closure. The rest of the journey passed off peacefully and she even got behind the bar to help out serving the food and drinks. (“I’m not used to doing this,” she apologised.) I forgot to take her name, but congratulated her and her team for their brilliant handling of the situation, and MML deserves a pat on the back for employing such good staff. (Note to MML: it was the 1730 from Nottingham on December 4.)

Yet, in the same company, the drivers feel so disillusioned with management that they reject an inflation-busting offer of 4% that would push their salaries above the £34,000 mark for a 35-hour week. There is something seriously amiss here. Sure, the drivers are being cavalier, but one has to question the management skills too. Interestingly, MML’s management had done a deal last year with ASLEF which included rostering Sunday working but it was rejected by its parent company, National Express Group, which was worried about setting a precedent. Even so, why are its staff so alienated that they are prepared to take this silly action? And why, indeed, did the management not ensure that Sundays were part of the roster some time ago, thereby closing this loophole?

There was an interesting clue to this in a piece in the London Evening Standard on December 6 by no less a journalist than Andrew Gilligan, he of the ‘sexed up’ 45-minute warning claims. He set out to inquire why the service of his local company, South East Trains, had improved so dramatically since the SRA sacked Connex a year ago and put in its own management team led by Michael Holden, a longstanding rail manager.

Gilligan finds that the key to the improvement is staff morale. The management now seem to care about what the staff do and even use the staff canteen, something the previous French bosses eschewed on the basis of the food being too awful (good call gastronomically but not politically). Gilligan quotes a commuter saying: “A lot of it really is detailed stuff – like the platform staff at London Bridge getting the doors closed and the trains away on time. If they’re motivated to do that, you can keep the timetable running, but if there’s sloppy station work it knocks in to the whole service.” The improvement may be as much about management as ownership (although it is interesting that SET, unlike MML, does not have an interfering head office to cope with), and suggests that Labour’s dogmatism in insisting that the Kent franchise should be reprivatised makes no sense in terms of passenger satisfaction or performance. Indeed Gilligan, a man not known for his left-wing sympathies, expressed surprise that ministers did not boast about this achievement: “That, unfortunately, would be to misunderstand the politics of New Labour. Still committed to the public-private mishmash that it has made of the rail network, the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, clearly regards the success of a state-owned rail company as an embarrassment.”

While union militancy has not been curtailed, nor has naked capitalism. Stagecoach is making huge profits out of the South West franchise, which is hardly surprising given the generosity of the renegotiation last year. This gave the company hugely increased franchise payments – well above those needed to service the leases on the new rolling stock – despite the fact that the terms of the original franchise were very favourable. No-one can begrudge Stagecoach’s ability to screw what a company insider once admitted to me was a ‘very generous deal’, because that is what capitalism is all about.

But it is also supposed to be about investment and enterprise. Stagecoach has a chance to improve its service enormously once the four extra tracks at Waterloo become available when Eurostar decamps to St Pancras. However, Graham Eccles of Stagecoach reckoned it was unlikely that his company would be in a position to make use of them. He told The Guardian on December 9 that “in an ideal world it would solve the growing capacity problem we are likely to face but I’m not sure it’s a viable option” because of the potential cost, which he guessed would be £100m. Of course, the problem is that it is not the private sector which can fork out such sums to build flyovers or complex new junctions – it is the taxpayer – and Eccles rightly reckons that the DfT is not in a mood to cough up anything. But wasn’t privatisation supposed to be about liberating the rail industry from the Treasury yoke? As a hapless hack, I do get so confused sometimes about what they tell me! One thing is certain: privatisation did not resolve the class war on the railways which is still raging, with little sign of abating. And, as in most wars, it is the innocent bystanders, the passengers, who are losing out.

Mystic Wolmar strikes again

It’s prediction time again. Last year Mystic Wolmar stuck his neck out and tried to make some brave predictions, having been criticised for previously going for the easy option. So this is what they were:

  1. Two out of three of Tony Blair, Alistair Darling, and Richard Bowker will no longer be in their current posts.
  2. The structure of the rail industry will be back on the political agenda and will be openly discussed by ministers.
  3. Gordon Brown will provide no extra cash for the railways in his spending review but any immediate crisis will be averted by extra borrowing for Network Rail and fudge by the SRA.
  4. Thanks to TPWS and luck, it will be another year without a fatal crash on the railways.

Well, clearly 2 and 3 were absolutely spot-on and require no debate. Indeed, 2 was true almost before that issue of RAIL hit the newsstands. No. 1 is a third right – Bowker did go, but both Blair (just) and Darling stayed in their jobs. Blair did announce his departure, however, so I get half a mark for that one. No. 4 is more difficult and was, with hindsight, rather unclearly worded. There was one major accident, Ufton, but it was not at all the fault of anyone or anything on the railways. So half a mark again – three out of four. It’s great to be able to check your own exam paper! ( Yeah, but not in my book – it’s two out of four, sorry Mystic, but “must do better” – Ed)

As with last year, I am going to try to be brave. So here’s five for 2005.

  1. GNER will lose the East Coast franchise despite its good record because First will prove to be much cheaper, but will be tossed the Integrated Kent Franchise as compensation.
  2. A civil servant will be appointed to head the new Department for Transport rail group because no-one from outside will take the job at the salary of up to £120,000 being offered.
  3. Neither the Labour nor Tory manifesto will contain a word about the railways…
  4. … Labour will win the election with a 30-seat overall majority….
  5. … and whatever the result, Alistair Darling will have a new job.

But, as Mystic always says before looking into his crystal ball, “expected the unexpected.” I suspect there will be even more of it than usual in 2005.

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