Roy McNulty published his report, ‘Realising the Potential of GB Rail’, on 19 May. The report will inform the Government’s transport policy, with a White Paper expect this Autumn. The key recommendation is: cuts. Savings of £1bn a year should reduce the cost of running the rail network by 30%.
The cost-cutting is dressed up as giving ‘passengers and taxpayers ... the fair deal they deserve from the rail industry.’ Acknowledging UK rail fares are the highest in Europe and passenger groups’ calls for reform, Sir Roy McNulty recommends a ‘less complex and more equitable’ system of fares. He also recommends no line closures and a reform of rail franchising.
It might sound friendly and in many ways logical. But alarm bells should sound when we hear talk of ‘cost cutting’. The tone is even more terrifying from Transport Secretary Philip Hammond: ‘We have to drive down costs in the railways. The rail industry, frankly, has not changed as much as it should have’.
The Labour government commissioned this report, but after years of research, it has only identified one major potential saving: our jobs, wages and conditions!
Sir Roy complains of ‘wage drift’, suggesting that our wages have risen too high compared to other industries. So, he recommends ‘reducing staff costs’ by £260m out of £740m by 2018/19. He calls for ‘a review of staffing’ and ‘inefficient’ working practices, mainly recommending ‘driver only operation’ to become the standard for rail services, ie. getting rid of guards!
Wages too high?! Never mind the fact that a gateline worker at Waterloo, in the heart of London, at the longest gateline in Europe, earns little more than £14,000 a year! Too many staff?! Never mind the fact that staffing levels are so low that it is standard to leave national rail stations completely unstaffed!
After 17 years of fighting through rail privatisation to cling onto wages and conditions, seeing many disappear along the way, we are accused of costing our employers too much! We have only won what we have fought for. Conditions and hours in our industry are still anti-social, unsafe and unhealthy. Wages might be higher than elsewhere, but only because workers without a union are paid too little. When McNulty complains of rail companies’ ‘poor management of industrial relations’, he really means: he would prefer it if we, too, had no union at all.
Having cut every public service, the government has worked its way round to us. Our unions need to take these attacks seriously. The government is feeling for how much it can get away with, flexing its muscles; it would love to be able to take on and defeat the unions in our industry.
We need to fight this fight as determinedly as they are; and more!
We need to put forward our own alternative vision for reducing costs and simplifying structure: bring the entire industry back into public ownership! This argument is easier now that Public-Private Partnership on the Tube has collapsed. The inefficiency of 20 train operating companies vying for contracts, subsidised but charging rip-off fares to make profit is proven; government subsidies are five times higher than under nationalisation.
The railway should be part of an integrated transport system, run by workers, serving the public and helping the environment. McNulty is right in one thing: the franchising system is inefficient and the rail network too fragmented. But he avoids the obvious answer and even recommends compounding existing problems by breaking up and re-privatising Network Rail.
We need to build links between our rail unions and passengers. The report implies that greedy workers are standing in the way of passengers’ cheaper services. Don’t let them divide us! We believe travel should be cheaper, ultimately free, as part of our belief that the railways should be a public service.
The government could demand cuts in jobs, pay and conditions as a condition of renewing rail companies’ franchises. If so, our unions should seek a dispute with every company simultaneously, knocking companies down one-by-one until they all cave in.
This should be a cross-union, rank-and-file-led fight. To make this happen, we should set up a national reps’ committee. This would ensure that reps are not just fighting local battles, but are linked up in a national network. It would also make it more likely that national union leaders would understand that strength of feeling and willingness to fight of workers at the grass roots.
We should organise fighting funds to enable sustained industrial action if needed. With the government’s fighting talk about further anti-union laws, the unions should organise their funds to minimise the risk of sequestration (where union funds can be seized if the union acts outside of the law).
Our rail unions should not just hope for the best. We need to start discussing strategies now. If we look serious about fighting and the government feels they will face national strike action if they persist along these lines, then we can fend off this attack.
The last Labour government commissioned Sir Roy McNulty to conduct a 'Rail Value for Money' study in December 2009.
So how well qualified is McNulty to assess 'value for money'?!
McNulty was paid £218,215 for the report, with a core team of seven who worked on the study receiving a total of £968,638.
McNulty is the former chair of aerospace manufacturer Short Brothers and of the Civil Aviation Authority. In 1999, the government appointed him to steer through the privatisation of the National Air Traffic Service.
He is deputy chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, and chair of its remuneration committee, which oversees directors' payouts. The eight ODA directors have shared £1.5m in bonuses.
So .. value for money for fat cats and private profiteers, maybe. Value for money for rail workers and passengers - you're kidding!