Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has written about trips for which The independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key question of travel and what it means to you.
As you know, this is the worst summer for railway disruption since the 1980s. I am writing aboard the 1:30 pm from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington on Saturday 30th July. This is the only intercity route on the Great Western Railway (GWR) network with actual trains in operation.
I was hoping to be on board the departure an hour ago, but it was canceled. A driver-manager is at the helm of this.
The very helpful guard has warned passengers that the last train back from Paddington to the west of England is at 7.30pm. At least GWR is doing better than Southeastern, one of six other rail operators whose drivers are on strike on July 30. London Charing Cross, the central hub for services to Kent, is all closed because there are no trains.
August is full of strikes. On Saturday 13 August, around 7,000 train drivers who belong to the Aslef union and work for nine rail operators will leave, with Avanti West Coast and CrossCountry involved in the union action.
The fifth and sixth days of national rail strikes by RMT members will disrupt much of the network on August 18 and 20 with a bonus London Underground stop sandwiched between them on August 19.
The taxpayer is currently funding railways like never before: the Rail Delivery Group, which represents rail operators, estimates rail revenues have fallen by 20% (around £ 2bn a year) since the coronavirus pandemic.
There are three ways to cut the hallucinatory subsidy to those of us who remain railroad loyalists:
Let’s take a look at each of these options. The unions are betting that as the Treasury’s unlimited credit card preserved all rail jobs during the Covid pandemic, financial support for running the current level of trains will continue.
I’m afraid they are wrong unfortunately. Downing Street’s next tenant will make tremendous reductions in government spending, and the railways are an obvious target. Some of the cuts will concern investments for the future (with the number of passengers decreasing, it is easy to justify them), others the reduction of the number of railway services in operation.
The only way to avoid those cuts: increase passenger revenue or reduce the cost of running the rail network. Weekends now represent the future of the railroad, with leisure travel replacing commuter traffic as potentially the best source of extra income. This is why the unions switched to strikes between Thursday and Saturday (with the addition of hangover breaks on Sundays) to take home their demands.
Stopping all Great Western trains to or from Cornwall, Devon or South Wales on the last Saturday in July is an excellent way to cause maximum disturbance to as many tourists and hikers as possible.
While any union will naturally seek the maximum impact from abandonment, the effect on railroad trust among families whose journeys are destroyed could prove to be long-lasting.
In terms of productivity: there are probably more opportunities to find efficiencies in the rail sector than in any other sector. The eventual resolution of this tangle of disputes will involve the unions who extract a percentage here, a compensation there in exchange for the reform of labor practices.
The deal to end the strikes will include a number of worker benefits that mask the value of the pay rise. Expect a headline figure of perhaps 5%, but Network Rail and the rail operators will offer some potentially very valuable travel concessions for rail workers’ families or partners that amount to thousands of pounds a year. Good luck to them, but a friendly reminder that any strike causes short-term damage and a long-term erosion of public confidence in the railways.
Long-suffering passengers and taxpayers, as well as railway staff themselves, deserve a quick deal.