Christmas is, of course, a time to believe in miracles – but when the government is reduced to publicly imploring the RMT union to bring out its altruistic side, it seems more likely that the railway is teetering on the edge of a not very festive abyss.
The new rail minister, Huw Merriman, got all sides together on Friday, in a statement of intent. But time is running out to avoid what will probably be the most damaging strike action yet: two 48-hour walkouts across Network Rail and train operators between 13-17 December, and an overtime ban that will bring more disruption to services throughout the Christmas period – right up to another planned week of strikes in early January.
Talks between the RMT, Network Rail – employer of crucial signalling staff – and train operators must hit some sort of agreement by Monday night, or more rail chaos is assured. An 11th-hour truce, as the RMT showed last month, is too late to keep the trains running. And while paying members to stay home, instead of striking, may appeal in the short term, unions will swiftly lose public sympathy should that situation recur.
The first strikes are also due just after the introduction of a new timetable next Sunday, designed to restore more regular intercity trains on Avanti West Coast and more reliable services on Northern and TransPennine Express. Now 11 December – a red-letter day for Avanti’s promised recovery for many months – looks set to herald a week of more mayhem. Train drivers could walk out again, too, around Christmas: Aslef’s executive meets on Tuesday, armed with fresh strike mandates.
The industry is acutely aware of the sensitivities around seasonal travel. Passenger numbers are traditionally low, compared with daily commutes – but woe betide the rail boss who keeps, say, a newspaper editor from leaving the capital and returning to the office after Boxing Day. The ghosts of Christmas past include headlines about overrunning engineering works that left thousands of passengers delayed or diverted from central London one 27 December. Back in 2014, quaintly, such mayhem led to a parliamentary inquiry; this year, it’s been barely a morning’s work for Avanti.
At a point in December when dispute has raged for a year, when passengers are in despair and senior insiders privately admit they won’t be risking the train, the immediate outlook appears bleak.
But there are reasons to think the railway can be hauled back from the brink. Industry finances long escaped scrutiny in the good times; now, some argue, Treasury tightness is overblown. Passenger numbers are returning to pre-Covid levels outside the big commuter belts – and more firms want those reluctant travellers back.
Overall, rail traffic is at about 80% of 2019 levels, even with many deterred from taking the train. And if the poisoning of industrial relations is the main reason for the mayhem at Avanti and elsewhere, with staff no longer working the overtime that operators require, could spreading the love – and a little cash – fix the railway’s wider problem? Revenue may be £6m a day below 2019, but the whole dispute could be settled for the kind of money dropped on a dodgy PPE contract, or a fraction of the losses from a misjudged mini-budget.
In the short term, industry chiefs believe few staff, with bills mounting and presents to buy, are keen to forgo wages from strikes or from an overtime ban, in a season with plentiful opportunities for double pay.
Long-term, net zero ambitions rely on a switch to electrified transport – and trains far outstrip cars or buses on that front, never mind planes. On Thursday, underlining that point, the government pledged a continued £44bn spend on the railways over the next “control period” from 2024-29.
The ghost of Christmas yet to come cannot point a bony finger at railway’s grave. Salvaging Christmas present, however, will require some dramatic adjustments on both sides.