Later this month, Britain’s biggest rail union will deliver a hammer blow to railway finances, prospects for future growth and likely the jobs of its own members. By announcing a three-day staggered strike, they designed the walkout to inflict the maximum possible disruption over the longest possible duration in an attempt to force ministers to bow to wage demands. The damage this will inflict on future passenger confidence, perceived reliability and market share will be enormous.
So why are railroad unions dragging their members into what could be the most damaging series of nationwide railroad strikes in a generation? What is the basis for kicking in a sector that remains in intensive care after the pandemic; a decision that can only encourage more people to give up the train, choose the car or work more from home? There are historical lessons here that every railroader should heed and consider when reading the next RMT dictate.
The similarities to Arthur Scargill’s disastrous year-long miners’ strike in 1984-85 and the railways today are clear. In the early 1980s, the British coal industry was overproducing by almost 20%; its markets were shrinking and a deep recession had further reduced customer demand. As a result, tens of millions of tons of coal were piled up in power plants, and pits continued to produce coal they could not sell, with a huge subsidy from taxpayers. Scargill was not interested in helping to provide a viable sector where supply met demand, and instead argued that it was up to ministers to keep the deficit pits going.
The strike eventually led to the collapse of the coal industry as customers turned to more reliable suppliers and alternative fuels. Between 1985 and 2015, 170 collieries closed and more than 170,000 miners lost their jobs.
The parallel for railway workers is important, as the sector is in its weakest state since the end of the Second World War – particularly after Britain’s railways were hit by the pandemic. Boris Johnson’s work-from-home order led to a 77 per cent drop in rail usage, which particularly decimated the once lucrative Home Counties commuter market for five days. Revenue from this alone covered much of the railroad’s cost base and limited the need for increased ratepayer support.
More than £16billion of taxpayers’ money has since been spent to keep the network running, despite peak weekday commuter numbers standing at just 20% of pre-pandemic levels.
A further £4.5billion has been handed over to Transport for London to keep the Tube running, but traditional peak-hour passenger flows are not returning to the capital and the repercussions are clear. This month’s strike will further hurt TfL’s perilous finances just as it unveils the new £18billion Elizabeth line.
Unions ignore the existential threat facing the railways. Hybrid working means passengers have choices that didn’t exist before, and prolonged strikes will inevitably lead to more travel. But rather than working with planners to try to win back passengers, unions seem determined to fatally undermine future growth, which can only mean fewer trains and fewer jobs.
Rail and coal were once interdependent. Railway workers should remember what happened to their former compatriots whose union prioritized a politically motivated strike over any real ambition to address a radically changing marketplace where customers have new choices and cheaper.