Rail 911: Warning: cuts ahead

The scene: Waterloo station, on Saturday, the first day of August. Time: noon. I have to negotiate a long funnel with lots of social distancing messages to reach the counters of ticket office. Presumably it was put up in anticipation of the crowds who would be seeking buy tickets but it is empty. There are two clerks available in the booking office both sitting twiddling their thumbs.
Clutching my tickets in one hand and my bicycle in the other, I weave easily through the crowds on the concourse because there aren’t any, just a few desultory mask-wearing travellers all carefully social-distancing.
The photograph: On the following Monday, the Guardian’s website carries the picture of a solitary figure walking up the steps in Birmingham’s Colmore business district where, the paper reports, most of the office blocks remain empty despite Boris Johnson’s injunctions to start returning to normal. The report continues: ‘At the city’s train stations at rush hour just a handful of people sauntered out, mostly heading to work in shops or hospitals rather than to office-based jobs’.
This is the new normal. Except it might not be. Infuriated by having to pay out around £700m per month to keep the trains running, the Treasury is on the warpath. Plans have been prepared to cut swathes of the railway in the event of a second lockdown or if numbers fail to return to the railways. And they are devastating.
The Treasury is not bluffing. There will be no second bail-out. Officials in the Department for Transport are finding it increasingly difficult to hold the line about keeping all services going. Thanks to the swift imposition of Emergency Measures Agreements, services on virtually all lines have been kept going and the Treasury has agreed to fund the short fall in revenue – so far. Numbers of people travelling, though, are remaining remarkably low. After a brief period when passenger levels touched 20 per cent of the usual total expected at this time of year, at the time of writing in early August they dipped to 16 per cent.
The slow rate of recovery is, according to my rail industry sources, down to the lack of coherence of the government’s response to the pandemic and, in particular because of the lack of conviction of the man at the top. This, dear reader, is not a political point but a sober assessment of leadership skills. It is indisputable that Boris Johnson has failed in giving clear and unequivocal leadership in the same way that his counterparts in Scotland and Wales have done. Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford have been omni-present and far readier to explain their decisions than Johnson has been. Add in the Specsavers trip to Barnard Castle by his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, and trust in government has reached its nadir.
And it goes on. One senior rail manager I spoke with was infuriated by the mixed messaging during the first week of August. On the one hand, Johnson was suggesting people ought to go back to the office, while on the other he was floating the idea of all over 50s being divided into tiers with different levels of restriction and lockdown. He told me: ‘No wonder people are not using the railways, they are terrified after these weeks of being told not to and then every time Johnson opens his mouth he makes them more scared.’
It is a second spike in cases that represents the worst possible threat for the railways. If there is a second lockdown, even partial, there is simply no money available for the Department to keep paying for trains carrying fresh air. Major cuts will be inevitable. When I first started writing about the impact of Covid-19 on the railways, I rather lightheartedly referred to a second Beeching-type axe in an article I wrote for The Times. Now that seems all too prescient. There is a serious risk of cuts to the network that will make Beeching seem like an aperitif.
Among the ideas that have been set out would be severe cuts to regional services, including the scrapping of most branch lines, notably those in Cornwall and East Anglia; a reduction in the frequency of InterCity trains, including the removal of stops in areas with high instances of the disease such as, for example, Wigan or Leicester; and a thinning out of commuter services which, incidentally, now have their peak at 6am as they are used by key workers rather than office staff.
The idea is to save money, of course, and therefore plans would be made to cut back on staff. Undoubtedly drivers and guards would be affected, as would backroom staff at Network Rail preparing investment schemes (known as wading through the GRIP process). Platform staff would fare better because they are needed to ensure social distancing. Many more office staff could go if, as is expected under the new contracts expected to be created when the current emergency arrangements run out, track access charges are no longer paid through the train operators. Then all the ridiculous games being played to attribute delays through what are known as Section 4 and Section 8 arrangements could be a thing of the past and literally hundreds of ‘bean counters’ could find themselves on the streets.
In normal situations, the public reaction to any such cuts would be extremely strong. However, these are not normal times and a second spike and possible lockdown would result in such a wrecking of the economy that there would be little fuss about the loss of part of the rail network. The government would argue that schools, the NHS and welfare must all take precedence. Again, in normal circumstances, the minister in charge would try to defend his or her corner but in Grant Shapps, the Department of Transport is headed by an aviation enthusiast with no particular interest in the railways. He is a Johnson loyalist who, apparently, when told to jump just says ‘how high?’. His passion is aviation and he has been heard to argue the as the aviation sector has not been bailed out why should the railways? In fact, massive loans have been provided to several airlines but these are expected to be paid back whereas the £700m or so per month poured into the railways is lost forever.
Everyone in the industry has to understand the veracity and risk of this threat. My industry sources tell me that the threat is very real and that passenger numbers are being assessed on a daily basis. If there are no signs of a mass return to the railways in the next few months, than these contingency plans will be implemented. Even the best case scenario being considered by ministers is that if a vaccine is found, perhaps up to 60 or even possibly 70 per cent of the 2019 passenger number levels will be achieved by 2022. Without a vaccine – and personally I am very sceptical about one being produced within a couple of years – the numbers will be far lower.
In the regions, people are simply jumping into their cars even to go into city centres where often parking remains cheap or even free. Commuters are working from home, as witness by the paucity of travellers in the peak hours and leisure travellers, apart from those going to the coasts, are simply shunning the railways or foregoing their journeys. As I have said before, those who think people will return to the railways like they did to aviation after 9/11 people or to trains after the 2008 financial crash are sorely mistaken. This pandemic has not only caused widespread and lasting fear, but it has also coincided with the widespread use of technology that obviates the need to travel as much.
Any major cuts could well end up becoming permanent. While initially they would be presented as temporary, without signs of a major revival in numbers elsewhere on the network, they may become irreversible. Mothballing modern rolling stock is problematic. Apparently condensation can quickly wreck the delicate electronics. Mothballing lines is equally difficult as they deteriorate all too rapidly. Drivers made redundant would be difficult to attract back to the industry.
HS2 might be safe as it is seen as a great job creator but, on the other hand, it has many enemies within the Tory party and if there were to be major parts of the industry mothballed, then the case for HS2 would fall apart. The industry must get together and do everything to get people to use trains. Yet, as I write, Transport for Wales is still saying that only key workers should be using their trains. Well, one of the first cuts to the rail network would be large chunks of the Welsh network. The industry needs to make a start with the campaign to get people to use the railways. The messaging must change starting with, as I have already suggested, a big public launch. The ‘don’t use the railways’ messaging was produced quickly enough. Now for the reverse gear.