Hybrid working continues to hamper rail’s post-Covid recovery

Commuting can be fun. Just ask the lucky staff who fly the seaplane from the Port of Vancouver to Victoria BC, the provincial capital. Or, on the other side of North America, those lucky enough to ride New York’s Roosevelt Island Tramway – effectively a cable car and “the most modern aerial tram in the world” – shuttling between the East River Island and 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.

But most of the time, commuting really isn’t much fun. This is why the acceleration of hybrid working that has arisen from the otherwise tragic coronavirus pandemic is rightly celebrated by millions. The 7.47 from Basingstoke (a 13 minute 8 Hampshire town train, not a Jumbo jet) to London Waterloo is much emptier than it was.

The quality of life has improved significantly for those lucky enough to spend at least part of the week working from home. Net income also increased. But the corollary, of course, is that the basis for funding the railways has been removed. Around £2.2billion in fare revenue each year on Britain’s pre-Covid rail network came from season tickets bought against their will by commuters who knew they were a captive market.

This income has collapsed by 75%. Naturally, some of the £1.65billion goes back into the rail industry – with commuters buying day tickets rather than weekly, monthly or yearly seasons. But according to the latest figures from the Office of Rail and Road last month, overall revenue is still around £5bn lower than the £11bn collected from pre-pandemic fares.

The taxpayer is now making up the difference – as they did at £1million an hour at the height of the crisis. Ghost trains carrying just a handful of passengers have become one of the hallmarks of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK – with railway workers and women on the front lines keeping the system running for essential workers.

They deserve credit. They also deserve a pay rise – especially since inflation is eating away at everyone’s wages at an alarming rate. The question is: how much, and what if they don’t get it?

How many? “A wage offer which makes it possible to face the crisis of the cost of living, to secure the employment of our members and to offer good working conditions”, indicates Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union.

“Network Rail’s recent proposals fell far short of compensation and security around maintenance work,” he says. “And the railroad companies didn’t even give us a salary offer in recent negotiations.”

Mr. Lynch announced two additional strike days, August 18 and 20, in addition to action next Wednesday, July 27. Half of the rail network will be closed and on the portion remaining open, far fewer trains will run. The effect will continue the next day.

Crucially, the August strike shows that the RMT is now targeting exactly the market the railroad desperately needs to rebuild its finances: not so much commuters, but discretionary travelers making mostly leisure trips. With departures on Thursday and Saturday, the third weekend of August will not be the best time to travel by train.

“We will continue our campaign until we reach a negotiated settlement,” Lynch said.

“Anyone who truly believes there can be a wage offer that meets or exceeds the highest levels of inflation in a generation is unrealistic,” Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines retorts in a message to the personal.

I sympathize with union members – but fear they are confusing the fact that no railway workers have lost their jobs during Covid with proof that they are utterly indispensable. A great railway confers enormous advantages on the nation. But I predict that the next Prime Minister will not hesitate to reduce the sector at the start of the cuts. For everyone’s sake – especially the passenger, stuck in the middle – a settlement is desperately needed.

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