On 29 January, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced what many had been expecting sooner or later since May 2018, that Arriva Rail North will be stripped of the Northern Railway franchise and that it will be taken into public ownership and run by the government's Operator of Last Resort.
The RMT union’s press release on the subject rightly highlights the danger that the government will see this is a short-term way of "sorting out" the mess Arriva has made before offering the franchise out for re-privatisation, and calls for proper long-term investment and planning. Positively, it is also devoid of that union's usual nationalistic rhetoric about the fact that Arriva is actually owned by the German state railway, Deutsche Bahn. Perhaps the union realises now that the franchise is actually being confiscated that it is nonsense to criticise the fact that the profiteers that own the network are “foreign”, as if it would be any better if they were “British”, rather than the idea of privatisation itself.
Drivers' union Aslef issued a press release from General Secretary Mick Whelan welcoming the government's decision and echoing RMT's call for proper long-term planning of the operation. This is in line with its policy for a publicly owned railway. It also namechecks the Labour metro Mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, in the union's typical style of bigging up all things Labour. Aslef members in the region know, though, that Rotheram at least does not have a great record of backing workers taking industrial action against Driver Only Operation (DOO). Whelan also points out that things on Northern “would have been much worse without the flexibility of [its] members, who are also impacted when services are cancelled, because the company has never employed enough drivers to deliver the service it promised”.
This masks some important details. Aslef has been sanctioning Rest Day Working by its members on Northern since June 2018, under an agreement that gave huge ground to the company in return for little long-term improvement to the conditions of its members. In fact, a section of its membership actually saw their pay rate for working rest days reduced when compared to the previous agreement that expired late in 2017.
This agreement is acknowledged by some in the union as having rescued the company from having the franchise confiscated earlier, and this is openly admitted by some elected reps on the Company Council. In light of this, the union seems somewhat hypocritical to welcome the announcement when two years ago it helped rescued the company from this exact fate, in contradiction of its own policy.
It is impossible to predict at this stage what the Tories plan will be for Northern. With their new strength in Parliament, it is entirely plausible that Northern will be used as the battleground for a showdown with the rail unions. Plans for a ban on all-out strikes in the transport industry were in the Queen’s Speech, and with RMT guards recently returning another vote for industrial action on the floundering South Western Railway, another possible target for nationalisation, the Tories could see nationalisation as a way of attacking rail workers and our unions. We urgently need to gear up for that possibility and get our side to fighting fitness.
It is also possible, however, that they will not want to deal with the political fallout of such a course of action. There is little or no public support for DOO and the major impact on train services that would surely arise would very likely be blamed on the government, especially in the case of a publicly owned section of the industry.
The labour movement should begin campaigning to keep Northern public, and for it to be run under the democratic control of its workers and the communities it serves. Such a campaign could articulate a progressive socialist model of how a public service could be run, and be well placed to defend the workers in the industry and their unions in the event of attacks by the government.