Give the East Midlands easier journeys to Manchester

We all have closed lines we wish we’d travelled on. I’d have loved to traverse the Waverley Route through lonely Riccarton Junction but it closed before I was born. I wish I’d nagged my parents to take me on the Alston branch line before it too closed.

Today, I can take a train partially along both lines and perhaps, one day, I will achieve my ambition, albeit narrow-gauge from Alston to Haltwhistle.

Many wish they’d ridden the Midland Railway’s route from Derby to Manchester along Monsal Dale’s tunnels and viaducts and up the steep gradient to Peak Forest. There’s part of me in them but I’ll resist calls for it to reopen. Not because it might force Peak Rail to give up all its volunteers have achieved or because it would remove a popular walking route.

Despite the tantalising distance between Matlock at milepost 145 and Peak Forest Junction at MP161 (and the next seven miles of slow freight-only railway to Chinley), I don’t think it’s worth reopening.

Sure, it takes too long by rail from Derby to Manchester. There are no direct trains. Travellers face the choice of changing at Chesterfield for a 1-hour 56-minute journey or changing at Sheffield and taking 1hr 38min. Both entail eight pointless miles as they pass the junction for Manchester but don’t take it for almost another 20 minutes having been to Sheffield and back.

There’s an alternative and that’s the 25-chain Dore South Chord. It directly connects trains to and from Derby with the Hope Valley Line to Manchester. It’s not seen regular passenger use since the early 2000s when it hosted Midland Mainline’s Project Rio service of HSTs between Manchester and St Pancras while Network Rail rebuilt sections of the West Coast Main Line.

Far better to link Derby and Manchester by using the railway we already have than argue for a long-closed line to be reopened. Sure, the Dore route is longer at 80 miles compared with Miller Dale’s 60 but it’s there and ready to be used.

Creating a direct link will mean changing timetables. If you change at Chesterfield you’ll be aboard one of East Midlands Trains’ Norwich-Liverpool services. They run via Nottingham rather than Derby. Change at Sheffield and you’ll pick up a TransPennine Express for the trip over the Hope Valley.

A future East Midlands operator might reroute its Norwich trains to run from Nottingham to Chesterfield via Derby rather than Alfreton but this would make a long journey even longer. It might introduce a new direct service and ensure there’s space among Hope Valley’s string of mechanical signalboxes controlling trains under the absolute block system.

As potential operators begin thinking about their bids, I hope they will consider how to connect Derby and Manchester. The two cities surely deserve a better railway service than they have today.

This article first appeared in RAIL 834 on August 30 2017.

Commuter fares show rail’s complexity

National Fare Rise Day produced plenty of heat but little light. Supporters and opponents of today’s privatised railway traded blows with dodgy statements.

We’ll take the supporters first. The Rail Delivery Group rolled out a pie chart that explained where the railway spends its money. It claimed that 97p of every pound is invested back into the railway. This is wrong. RDG’s chart showed that the railway spends 4p on fuel. That is not investment, it’s simply a day-to-day running cost. Likewise the 9p that went towards ‘interest payments and other costs’.

RDG would have been on safer ground had it stuck with saying that only 3p went to train operating company profits. Perhaps it should have closely read its chart because it included a 26p segment labelled ‘investment in the rail network’? It has confused investment with spending.

On the opponents’ side, rail union RMT tweeted: “Rail companies to make minimum of extra £337 million from fares rise.” This implies that rail companies would take this extra money as profit. General Secretary Mick Cash used the phrase ‘coin in yet more cash’ which hints that it’s the train operators that will benefit from the rise in fares.

The implication is wrong. Government will want its share in the form of rising premium payments, or falling subsidies while, yes, a small amount will flow through to TOC profits. To put this into context, train operators sent government £3,019m in premium payments and £81m tax in 2015/16 while paying shareholders £228m (government then gave Network Rail £4,300m).

It’s government that controls the fares whose rise in January is linked to the inflation figure announced on August 15 (they account for 36% of fare revenue). Government is using a power designed to prevent TOCs hiking commuter fares for its own ends. The power comes from a fear at privatisation that the TOCs would take advantage of a captive market. Instead, it’s given government a way to change the balance of rail bills between taxpayers and farepayers. This is in line with Bowker’s Rule – that there are only two sources of rail funding: farepayers and taxpayers.

Government links the rise in regulated fares to the retail prices index (RPI), a measure of inflation. August 15 revealed an RPI of 3.6% so that will be January’s rise in regulated fares. The rise could have been RPI-1%, RPI+1% or any other figure – government decides.

Loud voices are calling for a different inflation figure to be used, the consumer prices index (CPI). Be careful what you wish for. How about a fare rise of CPI+1%? OK, that will be 3.6% because CPI is 2.6% and it would be government that decides what plus/minus figure to tag on.

Commuters, travelling every day with season tickets, don’t want to see their fares rise. They have enough bills going up faster than their wages. Rail simply adds to their pain but government wants them to pay more because it wants taxpayers to pay less.

Less is a relative term. Rail companies, particularly Network Rail, are spending large sums of money to improve tracks, trains and stations to provide more seats and more space for passengers. However, the space is swallowed so quickly that few notice.

Rail is struggling to keep up with demand in some areas, particularly commuting into major cities. This has as much to do with house prices as it does rail. City living is unaffordable for very many families, forcing longer trips to reach work.

Yet, yet, yet… More passengers generate more income. Higher income pays for improvements. There should be a point at which individual passengers stop being asked to pay more. Perhaps we might even see commuters benefitting from the sort of cut in rail fares that leisure and infrequent travellers have seen by switching from expensive flexible fares to cheaper advance tickets?

There’s a but. If commuters trains into Waterloo, Charing Cross or Liverpool Street are full – and they are – then what effect will cutting fares have? It will either generate more passengers to increase overcrowding or it will cut the money available to fix today’s let alone tomorrow’s capacity crisis. Either way, it will be train operators rather than government that takes passengers’ brickbats and defend a system that ministers rather than they control.

Despite the many problems, with government cancelling improvement projects amid concerns over their costs, it must stop forcing passengers to pay more every year.

This article first appeared in RAIL 834 on August 30 2017.

Strikes are a stalemate where both sides must make the right moves

As the hours ticked down to 1100 on November 11 1918, soldiers continued being killed on the Western Front. Germany had signed an armistice early that morning but its implementation was delayed to allow its message to be spread.

Those few hours proved fatal for many, not least for Americans whose commanders were keen to push forward even with the prospect of hostilities ceasing that same morning. The US commander, John Pershing, is said to have been keen to push on to Berlin in order to comprehensively defeat the Kaiser and his people. Pershing feared that anything less than a complete defeat would not convince those people they had lost.

Two decades later and Europe was again at war, not least because Germany’s leaders believed they had been betrayed in 1918 rather than feeling they had lost.

France and Britain took a different view to the recently arrived Americans. They wanted the killing to stop and the armistice achieved that after four years of war. This honourable and decent decision had terrible long-term consequences but was widely welcomed in the high streets and station roads of Britain and the rues and boulevards of France.

The moral of this story? It is sometimes better to clearly defeat your opponent. It’s now a year since Southern conductors voted for strike action about the train operator’s plans to convert their role into that of on-board supervisors (OBS) with door controls transferred to train drivers. That vote, organised by rail union RMT, resulted in an overwhelming mandate to reject Southern’s proposals and to take strike action.

Between then and now, those conductors have walked out for the equivalent of a month. Meanwhile, Southern made the changes it wanted. Drivers now control doors and trains run under driver only operation (DOO) rules. The conductors are now OBS, a grade RMT doesn’t recognise because to do so would be to accept the changes Southern has made.

The most recent strike took place on April 8. Southern said it ran 95% of its timetable and claimed that 55% of conductors and OBS reported for work. The RMT described the strike as rock solid.

It was a similar story on March 13 and February 22 with around 90% of services running and over half of on-board staff reporting for work.

The RMT executive appears in no mind to sue for peace and, with almost all it services running normally, there’s no pressure on Southern to extend any helping hand. Yet this dispute must end. But unless it ends in comprehensive defeat for the RMT, it will fester under the surface to erupt again.

It’s for the former conductors to put pressure on their union reps to end this strike. For those services working under DOO, they are now OBS. Before long, they will be looking for an annual pay rise but they can’t rely on their union to represent them because their union doesn’t recognise their grade.

The situation at Southern is further complicated by train drivers twice rejecting a deal agreed by their union, ASLEF. The two rejections come despite them driving DOO trains every day. It’s clear there’s a gap between ASLEF’s executive and their members although the most recent vote reveals a large number did not bother with their ballot papers.

Trains without guards are not new. Even before Southern’s dispute with RMT and ASLEF, hundreds of such services run every day, mostly around London. The capital’s Underground system runs all its trains under DOO. A guard is not essential. But a second member of staff on board is useful and generally welcome by passengers. That’s why Southern rosters OBS to its services but doesn’t cancel them if the OBS is not available.

The more hardline RMT becomes the more government will look to bypass it and let franchises on the basis that guards are removed either entirely or they become that second member of staff there to sell tickets and help passengers on the basis that the train will run whether or not they are present. RMT’s inflexibility will be demise of today’s guards’ jobs.

Merseyrail’s guards walked out on April 8, the day of the Grand National horse race at Aintree. Northern’s guards walked out on the same day. Their reasons were the same as on Southern. Merseyrail is introducing new trains that will be entirely DOO. On a network with similarities to London Underground, the local transport authority wants to remove guards completely.

At Northern, the DfT specified in the franchise agreement that a proportion of trains are switched to DOO with a second member of staff on board, as Southern does.

Northern plans to use new trains that should be in service towards the end of 2018. Northern is keeping details of where it plans to use DOO to itself. It says it wants to discuss its plans with its staff first which is laudable. But RMT will not talk with Northern unless the company guarantees the role of the guard. Northern cannot do this and so no substantive talks have taken place and the company’s staff remain in the dark.

If its employees’ union representatives will not represent their members then Northern should talk directly with its staff. Whether by letter, roadshows or management briefings, the company should explain directly what it wants to achieve and use the feedback it receives to refine those plans.

RMT plays effectively to peoples’ fears. It paints a picture of a staffless railway with no-one to help passengers. It floats the worry of redundancies. Yet that’s not what’s happened at Southern, which has recruited extra staff into OBS roles as well as offering former conductors these new roles. Nor has it cut pay.

The longer Northern remains silent the more worried staff and passengers become. It must move decisively to quell any growing fears. It must explain what its ideas mean for people. It must explain how it plans to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs, for example, because they usually need someone to lay a ramp between platform and train for them.

It must explain how it plans to meet the Office of Rail and Road’s recent principles for driver-controlled operation trains (that’s DOO plus a second member of staff on board). These guidelines can be summarised as ‘do it properly’ but go into more detail on what properly looks like. Trains must be compatible with platforms and vice versa, the train operator must assess how it plans to operate DCO, staff must be trained and competent and DCO’s implementation should be planned. Finally, ORR says the system (trains, platforms, staff) must be managed over its whole life with improvements adopted.

There’s little to argue with here. Indeed, ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan responded: “The key paragraph in the ORR’s principles published – which are really just a re-release of guidance the ORR has published before – is that ‘suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff must be in place for the safe implementation of driver control operation.’” Whelan said this was not the case today and called for train operators to work with his union to ensure they were. In contrast, RMT said the ORR’s work was politically motivated rehash of previous statements that was a “a mixture of undeliverables and lash-ups” aimed at removing guards.

ASLEF appears more willing to work with rail companies to find a way forward. As well it might with Thameslink about to introduce automatic trains to the national network for the first time. In time, more drivers might find their duties assumed by a computer. Whether or not a driver remains in the cab will depend on ASLEF’s attitude. Take a hard line and the union might find that, as RMT has, the government considers the railway would be better without its members. Take a more conciliatory line and look to remain useful as the railway changes and it’s more likely that jobs will remain.

This article first appeared in RAIL 825 on April 26 2017.

RMT plans to fight more battles… but the war looks lost

There’s always been a tension between the front and rear of a train. It’s some decades since freight trains lost their guards and the vans in which they rode on the rear of the train. At the front, the driver remained, albeit without a secondman.

Both unions, ASLEF for the drivers and the NUR (now RMT) for the guards, lost roles. But the NUR lost its entire role on freight trains while ASLEF kept its drivers. Old union hands remember these battles and remember the results.

Many of the frustrations between the two resurfaced in early February as it emerged that ASLEF had agreed a deal with Southern to run trains with an on-board supervisor (OBS) rather than a guard. The agreement included working trains when no OBS was available.

It led the RMT to accuse the TUC (which brokered the deal) of betrayal. A press statement from RMT didn’t mention ASLEF but it seems clear at whom it was pushing its accusation.

Talks between GTR Southern and ASLEF at the TUC took a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, two events made me think that ultimately Southern’s view would prevail. RAIL 818’s Comment revealed the agreement ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan had signed in 2011 to drive GTR Thameslink’s new trains (made by predecessor First Capital Connect) without guards. These new trains included the type from which GTR Southern planned to remove guards and they ran on many of the same routes. It showed that ASLEF had no fundamental argument with the concept Southern wanted.

The second event was a news story in the same issue that drivers were already operating the doors on 11 routes beyond those long-standing ‘driver-only’ inner-suburban routes. Operating the doors was previously the guards’ job and RMT argued that the switch put passengers in peril. The revelation meant that over 70% of Southern’s routes were already running without guards.

This meant that Southern had largely neutered strike action by guards. Thus few headlines resulted from RMT’s January 23 guards’ strike. The RMT had lost its key weapon and now stands to lose the battle.

As I write, ASLEF drivers are voting on the deal Mick Whelan agreed with GTR Southern at the TUC. ASLEF is recommending its members accept it but it’s not yet clear whether they have. Initially, the deal’s contents were kept secret but the manner of the TUC’s announcement said much. On the steps of Congress House, TUC General Secretary Francis O’Grady read from a prepared statement. She was flanked by GTR Southern Chief Operating Officer Nick Brown, Abellio HR Director Andy Meadows (who helped facilitate the talks), ASLEF’s Mick Whelan and his president, Tosh McDonald.

Whelan and McDonald had blank faces. Brown was trying hard not to smile. From the body language, it struck me that Southern had won (although one ASLEF man on Twitter cautioned me against playing poker with Whelan). As details of the deal leaked over the next few days, it seems that Southern had all that it wanted. Subject to the drivers’ vote, it looks to have won this dispute.

This leaves the RMT in a difficult position. Its strikes now have little effect. It guards are no longer guards. They are on-board supervisors. They are rostered to work trains but these trains can run without them.

There’s no easy way for a vanquished general to leave a battlefield. Southern would do well to show magnanimity and RMT some humility. The union should reflect on the almost year-long battle. If you are to fight, then advice suggests that you fight those battles you must win and fight them on ground that’s favourable. Perhaps RMT did not know that ASLEF had already signed away the principle on which it planned to stand. It should have known.

If RMT planned to fight on safety grounds, it should have checked whether history supported its case. History is not littered with accidents on which driver-only operation has been the cause. RMT chose instead to rubbish the figures and rubbish those producing them and any other counter-arguments. So safety regulator ORR, the Department for Transport, the Rail Delivery Group, rail safety body RSSB and, latterly, the TUC and ASLEF, have all been wrong.

In choosing to fight, the RMT sowed the seeds of its likely defeat. By stopping Southern running trains, the union will have strengthened the resolve of those seeking ways to run trains that don’t rely on RMT members.

A cannier union might have realised that it was unlikely to win a battle that it had first lost in the 1980s when British Rail introduced driver-only operation to Thameslink. It might have taken the assurances offered by Southern about pay and jobs for those guards transferring to OBS roles. It could have built on this by supporting the concept of a member of staff on a train to help passengers and argued that it should be extended to those routes that really do have just a driver. In this way, it may have netted more members from those taking OBS jobs with Thameslink or some of Southern’s inner-suburban services.

When the prospect of driver-only trains comes to other railways, as it is to Merseyrail and Northern, the RMT would have been able to show that it had a model that protected jobs and pay for existing staff and helped create more jobs.

Yet the rhetoric from Unity House suggests the RMT will instead decide to fight Merseyrail and fight Northern. If the winner of the South West Trains franchise competition opts for driver-only trains, it will doubtless fight it too.

If they have not already, those operators will need to realise that they are in a battle of wills. Unions are democratic. Their executives act on their members’ instructions. With good leaders, an operator can convince its staff that its plans are the best way forward. A TOC can win the vote but it will not be easy because union leaders will be trying to sway their members the other way.

Unions prefer to secure a mandate to strike before negotiations start. This can seem harmless at the time. It doesn’t mean there will be strikes but it does mean that union members will have no say if – when – union leaders call a strike. TOC staff as union members hold the key to a powerful weapon. They can decide at the outset whether they should enter a battle and should weigh whether they need to fight. They should think very carefully before handing control to union leaders.

Meanwhile, Southern must make sure it supports ASLEF’s drivers now responsible for closing doors. Those drivers are worried that they are under pressure to quickly close doors and start their trains. They are worried that they might not noticed someone trapped. Southern must ensure that cab screens show clear images and that at busier stations there are staff to help despatch the train.

Most of all, Southern must work to restore the confidence of its passengers.

This article first appeared in RAIL 820, published on February 15 2017.