Britain’s marathon rail strikes may be about to end

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Pforward tenants Britain railroads have become accustomed to strikes. On December 2 the train drivers’ union, ASLEF, began a week of regional rounds: the latest in a dispute that began in June 2022. There was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, however. On November 30 the RMT, another union representing railroad workers, finally agreed to a new pay deal. But even if strikes become less frequent, the performance of the railways is likely to remain sub-par.

photo: The Economist

More than 50 days have been lost due to strikes during the current dispute. Overtime restrictions have made Sunday services particularly inconsistent. The unions have faced job losses and fought for wage increases in line with inflation, in the face of funding pressures. During the covid pandemic rail companies were effectively nationalized, with public subsidies ceasing to make up for falling revenues (see chart). Ministers are trying to withdraw some of that money. But operator incomes are still nearly a third below their 2019 level in real terms due to increased remote work.

Mick Lynch, head of the RMT, said his agreement confirms that “continued strike action and unity are getting results. ” That is generous. True, Mr. Lynch won a guarantee that there would be no loss of employment next year. The government also dropped a controversial plan to close thousands of ticket offices. However RMT members settled for a one-year, well-below-inflation deal: a 5% pay rise backdated to 2022-23. That won’t even make up for the days they spent on the picket line. The union has long had a reputation for toughness but members were running out of patience.

The dispute with ASLEF it is more difficult. Train drivers are paid more than other rail workers – the average earns £60,000 (or $76,000) for a 35-hour week – so they may be able to hold out for longer . Ministers – who shape discussions although they are not directly involved – complain that train drivers are already well paid. But a contract similar to the rmtperhaps it will be reached at last. All railway unions have found that they have the power to disrupt because office workers can stay home on strike days. For many travelers, the biggest problem is inconsistent services the rest of the time.

That is unlikely to change. Performance worsened between April and June, according to the latest data. Out of 24 operators, less than two thirds of their services were running on time at 12. Punctuality worsened on all but three routes. Stage problems are hard to overcome anywhere but the worst performers are in the Midlands and North. Strikes haven’t helped, but staffing problems, poor morale and crumbling infrastructure are also to blame, says Christian Wolmar, a rail expert. Delaying reforms will not help.

What could be done? Since covid, rail companies have been paid a fixed regulatory fee along with performance incentives. But the transport sector keeps a tight grip on costs, meaning they have little freedom to innovate. Ministers want to support operators to increase passenger numbers. Some quieter services may be cut. The department has been waiting for a planned review – based on a new body called Great British Railways – to provide clarity on a long-term strategy. That is now unlikely to happen before the next election. Labor says it will bring in commercial franchises as they expire (most will come in the next parliament). Like the current ones, they have yet to offer much of a plan to get the railroads back on track.

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