Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pay His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you .
It’s all over by Christmas: that’s my possibly ambitious prediction for the toxic tangle of rail disputes currently destroying the travel plans of millions of travellers. The long and bitter dispute between unions, rail operators, Network Rail and a succession of transport secretaries is coming to an end.
“Oh no, it’s not,” you might sing along from the cheap seats of your favorite pantomime venue – especially if you’ve been looking to travel the West Coast Mainline this weekend since London Euston, completely closed once again due to a train conductor. strike.
But listen to me. My conclusion is based on conversations with the two main union bosses and on statements from the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Transport Secretary. I also have a growing sense that everyone is exhausted from the nationwide rail strikes that have traumatized train travel since mid-summer.
Let me start with Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef. Its members employed by 11 rail operators launched industrial action on Saturday. Seven of the railway companies did not operate any trains; the other four (LNER, GWR, Greater Anglia and TransPennine Express) offered skeletal services.
“It actually revolts me that we are on strike – and no one is trying to solve it,” Mr Whelan said.
He told me Friday afternoon that he saw “no solution in sight”. Yet he will meet Mark Harper, the new transport secretary, on Wednesday, and told me, “I’m looking forward to the meeting. I go there with hope as always. You know me: I want a resolution.
Conversely, I believe that Mr. Harper is a minister looking for an exit ramp, or the railroad equivalent. His two predecessors, Grant Shapps and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, could do little more than berate workers (and, in Mr Shapps’ case, attempt to blame Labor for the strikes).
The Department for Transport (DfT) has carefully sought to distance itself from the tough negotiations between Network Rail, rail operators and unions. Yet everyone knows that the government is deeply involved. With the vast majority of trains specified by ministers and backed with billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, any settlement must be approved by the Treasury.
The December and January RMT strikes (along with the inability of travelers to rationally plan their UK train journeys more than two weeks in advance) are already hurting hospitality and retail businesses and , therefore, erode VAT revenue. The Chancellor will be painfully aware that this is the last thing a nation already sinking into recession needs.
Politically, with a growing sense that the UK is turning into a winter of discontent, rail disputes are among the easiest to resolve.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, expected to sign a deal last Monday – but claims the crucial meeting was called off with less than an hour’s notice.
In response, he held an impromptu “pavement press conference” outside the railway union headquarters near Euston station, London. Mr Lynch was furious at what he said was government interference and announced an eight-day strike plus an overtime ban in December and January.
But he knows that further industrial action will hit members’ Christmas income hard.
Three days later, we journalists formed a free-for-all outside the DfT to await the RMT boss after his first meeting with the transport secretary.
Mr. Lynch is contractually obligated to criticize what he (and Mr. Whelan) describe as “profiteering” on the part of the rail operators. But he also told me that his hope was to “get the railway back to normal and that we can run the services freely, properly over the Christmas period”.
Late Friday, a DfT spokesperson told me: ‘With our railways in desperate need of reform, we are once again urging unions to call off damaging strikes and work with employers to agree a fair way forward for taxpayers, passengers and workers alike. »
The next four weeks will show whether my optimism is, not for the first time, misplaced.