TRAIN OF THOUGHT

ThomasA woman with two dogs allowing the delayed Euston train to depart without her because she’d booked a reserved seat (presumably canine-friendly) on the next one, whenever it might arrive; a woman whose long day had begun at the crack of dawn travelling from Manchester to Glasgow and back again – just two commuters I spoke to yesterday following the cancellation of my own direct express. Relocated to another platform, I had to journey to Manchester Piccadilly and then change, missing a train by a matter of minutes and then hanging around for half-an-hour for the long-awaited ride home. The ticket inspector on the first train informed me I should have waited for the next, as my ticket was apparently invalid on this one, what with it being a different company (God bless privatisation and deregulation, eh?); however, I was fortunate to be spared a Jobsworth; perhaps she was sympathetic to the palpable desperation of passengers to get back before the drawbridge came down and strike action got underway. An absence of a ticket inspector on the second train made life easier, considering both my experience on the first and the fact the empty seats on the second seemed to be either reserved for the Invisible Man or exclusively for those of a disabled persuasion; carefully extricating the reserved sign from the top of the seat, I breathed a sigh of relief on a sparsely-occupied carriage and hoped my presence would pass by unnoticed; mercifully, it did.

With the dates pencilled-in for the rail strike made public a week or so before they came into being, I imagined I myself would be safe from any travel disruption, though I was maybe pushing it a bit choosing to journey home from a weekend away less than 24 hours before it all kicked-in. Anyway, I made it in the end, albeit an hour later than planned. Others might not be so lucky in the days ahead. As history has shown us – whether or not the ‘within living memory’ element counts to anyone under-40 – industrial action taken by one workforce has a habit of triggering a chain reaction so that each public sector union enters into a competition with others to see who can extract a sufficient volume of blood from the management stone. Cost-of-living crises tend to spawn such situations, so perhaps it’s no surprise we find ourselves where we are following two years of exceptional circumstances, not to mention a decade of austerity and underinvestment.

Where the railways are concerned, of course, the fact British Rail is now a distant memory has left us in a different predicament to that which anyone old enough to have lived through the 1970s can recall; a caller on an LBC phone-in pointed out the differences early on Tuesday morning, going viral on Twitter and bringing her points to a far wider audience than that which ordinarily tunes-in to LBC phone-ins. She referenced the £4 million in tax payers’ money that kept Northern Rail afloat in 2014, £36 million of which found its way into shareholders’ pockets; she referenced the fact numerous rail firms paid out £1 billion in shareholders’ dividends in 2019 whilst simultaneously raising fares by 36%; and she referenced the fact that in 2021 – after the Government had stepped-in to prop-up the train companies when so few were given dispensation to travel by rail during the pandemic – the Network Rail CEO took home over three times the Prime Minister’s salary, with his company still paying £20 million of dividends to shareholders as it gratefully accepted a £11 billion rescue package. A natural consequence of privatisation we’ve now lived with for 30 years or more, yes – but always worth stating as Ministers shy away from doing likewise.

When even the likes of Peter Hitchens can find himself in an unlikely alliance with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn when it comes to the re-nationalisation of the railways, it’s not so easy to dismiss the proposal as a left-wing fantasy; but rail strikes were a routine occurrence during the era of British Rail, lest we forget – the most significant one taking place at the beginning of 1973, several months before the Three Day Week; the tactic resurfaced during the notorious Winter of Discontent at the end of that troubled decade, but every other public service seemed to be striking then, so the effects of it can easily be swallowed-up by memories of the collective inconveniences endured by the general public at that time. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher implementing a variation on the legislation Barbara Castle proposed (and the Labour Party bottled out of) a decade earlier, trade unions no longer have the kind of clout they possessed 40 or 50 years ago, yet – as happened with the fire-fighters’ unions in the early 2000s – they retain the ability to disrupt the public and shame the Government when their actions are so unusual that they receive the kind of coverage they were denied in the 70s and early 80s, when such events were so routine that few batted a weary eyelid.

The fact is that the 24-hour news services of the 21st century are largely unaccustomed to such scenarios, and therefore report this sort of story with the same hysterical fervour that they greet each and every development in current affairs. An unintentionally hilarious down-the-line interview conducted by Sky’s Kay Burley with Mick Lynch, Secretary-General of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (or RMT to the layman) was a case in point; Burley – she’s the one who led a birthday conga through London bars when the capital was in ‘Tier Three’ lockdown at the end of 2020, you might recall – furtively pressed a calm and composed Lynch what his nefarious plans would be should bussed-in agency workers attempt to cross said picket-lines; she even excitedly evoked the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike, as though every placid picket-line outside a railway station would suddenly erupt into a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave. Lynch received Burley’s silly attempts at egging him on with the contempt they deserved and she responded by behaving as though he had committed a hate crime against her. It was a telling exchange that said a great deal about where we are – whether or not those employed by privately-owned rail companies can be viewed as public sector workers anymore.

At the same time, the BBC News online headline declared ‘Huge rail strike will cause misery for millions’, yet I don’t remember a similar one decrying the policies of the Government a year or two ago that caused far more short-term misery for millions (and far more long-term damage) than any storm-in-a-teacup industrial dispute probably will. Yes, a rail strike coming with petrol prices at a 17-year high (courtesy of taxes, that Ukraine business and, not forgetting, the emotional blackmail of a ‘Green’ intervention in domestic oil supplies) is a major disruption to the general public, forcing commuters to turn to a public transport system decimated by a decade-long ruthless pruning of services, yet it was inevitable some unions would revert to strike action when their members are feeling the pinch as much as anyone else. And, after a year or more of working from home, the return of the workforce to a dependence on bus or rail services to get them to the workplace on time was the perfect moment to hit – from the perspective of the unions representing such services, anyway; it was as inevitable a move as the post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis itself.

Boris has issued a scaremongering, pre-emptive warning that the country ought to prepare itself for a ‘summer of strikes’, whilst various Labour MPs have entered into point-scoring by joining rail workers on picket-lines (presumably keen to show they haven’t entirely lost touch with ‘ordinary people’ in the midst of their Identity Politics obsession). The Government appears determined not to bow to the rail workers’ demands for fear that other unions will also do an Oliver Twist and ask Sir for more, and they will be acutely aware that public anger with unions can swiftly be redirected towards Ministers should the strikes spread. Either way, it’s yet another disruption to already-disrupted lives and, whether or not one’s sympathies are firmly with the strikers, for most it’s one more pain in an increasingly painful arse.

© The Editor

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LAST TRAIN TO MAIDENHEAD

The temporary suspension of collective responsibility within a Cabinet by a serving Prime Minister is not a decision taken lightly by the man/woman in charge; more often than not, the ramifications of releasing the shackles of the party line can give the individual Ministers an appetite for expressing personal opinions that they remain reluctant to relinquish thereafter. At the time of the 1975 EEC Referendum, Harold Wilson may have got the eventual result he wanted; but it’s arguable the left/right divide within Labour that was given such a public platform during the campaign sowed the seeds for the split that did so much damage to the party in the 80s.

Similarly, David Cameron giving free rein to the Brexiteers within his own Cabinet last year continues to threaten unity at the highest level; not only did the result of the EU Referendum cost Dave his job, but it seems to have started a trend amongst Ministers to publicly disagree with one another on a regular basis, something the shaky outcome of the General Election seems to have exacerbated. Theresa May’s weak authority and inability to keep a lid on Cabinet conferences has played its part in the publicised bickering between prominent members of that Cabinet; Brexit remains the most divisive issue, but at the moment one feels as though if one person sat around the table at No.10 didn’t care much for the digestive biscuits provided, the nation would know about it within hours.

Chancellor Philip Hammond is the current target surrounding many of the leaks, accused by one unnamed colleague of trying to ‘f*** up Brexit’ and by another of claiming ‘even a woman can drive a train’ when public sector pay was under discussion. Of course, many of those feeding these stories from Downing Street to the press are rather eager to make the PM’s residence their address for the next four or five years, and the headlines reflect the struggle to topple Mrs May that is undeniably underway. She might hope threatening them with ‘it’s me or Corbyn’ will dampen the jostling for succession over the summer recess; but the hard slog of running a minority administration with a Cabinet of power-hungry backstabbers has the potential to break even a deluded martinet like Theresa May come the autumn.

Another divisive issue that has been around longer than Brexit and may well outlast it is that of HS2. The latest news of the proposed route for the white elephant express has added a layer of irony to a housing crisis in which not enough new or affordable homes are being built. It emerged yesterday that the planned eastern route of the line – from Leeds to Birmingham – will run east of Sheffield and not be served by any new stations in South Yorkshire; using Sheffield’s main city centre station means the route will plough through a newly-built housing estate in nearby Mexborough. The official Government statement claims only 16 of the 216 homes will make way for the line, but sceptical residents don’t accept this; they also question the compensation payments they’ll be entitled to that the Government initially said would enable them to purchase another home of equivalent value in the area.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling bigged-up the scheme yet again in the Commons yesterday and attempted to dismiss its numerous critics by reading from the usual ‘economic benefits’ script that accompanies any project in which people stand to lose both homes and businesses; but when one recalls Grayling’s abysmal performances in his previous Ministerial posts, any reassurances from him are hardly likely to fill those in HS2’s firing line with confidence. The South Yorkshire section of the route was unveiled a year ago, but confirmation of it yesterday prompted Rotherham’s Labour MP Sarah Champion to tweet ‘South Yorkshire will now get all of the disruption of HS2 without the benefit.’

As one resident of the new Mexborough estate that will be partially demolished to make way for the line said, ‘Bear in mind this is the construction of a viaduct that’s going to be 20ft in the sky coming within 10ft of your property, and they say, “it’s okay, your property isn’t one that has to be knocked down”.’ The construction of London’s Westway flyover in the late 60s caused similar damage as it cut a brutal swathe through North Kensington, whereas an entire centuries-old village was obliterated by the building of the Scammonden Dam and Reservoir that comprised the construction of the M62 motorway during the same period. Any project of this nature tends to dramatically alter the landscape and affect those that inhabit it, but such disruption in recent decades has largely been down to accommodating the motorcar; the railways were last the source of such opposition and upset in the nineteenth century.

HS2 was a contentious subject in Government circles long before Theresa May seized power and will remain so for her successor, whoever that may be. The route will pass through upwards of 70 Parliamentary constituencies and MPs have been inundated with demands from constituents to vote against the scheme, many of them Tories. The official Government line on HS2 is currently holding steady, but the PM’s failure to prevent leaks and to gag her most outspoken Ministers at the moment suggests if any issue that divides the public is just as likely to divide the Cabinet, chances are we’ll find out about it pretty quickly. When her position is somewhat perilous to say the least, Theresa May can ill-afford to allow the current state of play to continue; but it would appear she’s already lost the battle.

© The Editor

DRIVE TIME

2000Watching any movie or TV drama from forty-odd years ago in which there is a location scene shot in an urban environment, the first thought that nearly always strikes the viewer is the paucity of vehicles on the road. Of course, it is a sensible and time-honoured practice for film crews to shoot outdoors at the crack of dawn, usually during the summer months when the sun rises especially early, and in some cases (depending on the budget) a road is closed off to prevent pedestrians or motorists wandering into focus and unintentionally interfering with the production. But even if these factors are taken into consideration, there is the undoubted evidence of streets unencumbered by parked cars outside private residences. If one ever wants proof of how car ownership has increased since the 1970s, one only has to compare the average street decor in terms of vehicles then to the same kind of location today, whereby single file traffic is often the only way of navigating one’s way through a road narrowed by nose-to-tail stationary cars on both sides.

Regardless of the long-running PR campaigns dissuading people from driving – whether from the green angle, encouraging the use of bicycles, or from the congestion angle, encouraging the use of public transport – a car of one’s own remains a must-have accessory for the majority. At one time, particularly when women had clearly defined roles within a marriage, one car per family would suffice, and was generally the husband’s toy; then it became commonplace for both spouses to have a car each; that children generally fly the nest later these days, and that economic factors mean many of them return after a university sojourn, has resulted in a third car parked outside the house in many cases. I’m sure garages for hire must still exist, though it would seem few use them anymore.

Figures published at the beginning of this year found that the number of cars on the country’s roads rose by almost 600,000 in the space of twelve months, with 25.8 million licensed cars in the third quarter of 2015. The year before, the figure had been 25.2 million. Affluent south-east England (which can claim 561 cars for every 1,000 people) saw the largest regional increase, with 373,200 more cars over five years, and the British motor industry, for so many decades one of our most under-performing, reported 2.63 million new cars had been produced in 2015, a 6.3% rise on 2014 as production reached a seven-year high.

As ever, a greater demand in goods brings down their price, which is indisputable when one considers there were 21 million cars on British roads in 1995 and twenty years later this had risen to 31 million; had the cost of a car stood still, such an increase would have been impossible. Statistics from the Department of Transport say there is now at least one car for every two people in five out of nine English regions.

The construction of the M62 between Yorkshire and Lancashire in the late 60s, the aim of which had been (like most early motorways) to alleviate traffic on overcrowded old A and B roads and to cut short long journeys, has ultimately been a failure simply because the level of car ownership at the time of its opening in the early 70s was a fraction of what it is now. The men who planned it evidently didn’t foresee a future in which the great liberator of the trans-Pennine motorist would end up as one of the country’s most congested roads. An average flow of 70,000 a day in just 1999 had increased to 100,000 by 2006. The M62 is naturally used by HGV lorries and other commercial traffic, so the blame on the increase cannot be laid solely at the private motorist; but without the substantial growth in car ownership over the last forty years there’s no question the congestion that afflicts the likes of the M62 would be nowhere near as bad as it is today.

In the midst of the growth of car ownership, cuts to public transport have undermined it as an alternative. Over the last six years, the use of buses has fallen across two-thirds of English council areas; as with the railways, rising prices and unreliable services have seen numbers diminish, with a drop from 5.7 to 4.1 million journeys. Out of 89 transport authority areas, only 29 reported a rise in passengers in the most recent survey. Deregulation of bus services has had an impact on both quality of service and passenger numbers, not to mention the cost of travelling by bus, though it has to be noted that there are (as the Radio Times used to say) regional variations where these statistics are concerned.

Whereas Redcar and Cleveland saw 27% fewer bus journeys made in 2015 in comparison to 2010, West Berkshire saw a 44% rise during the same period. Perhaps it’s telling that the West Midlands and Black Country have experienced a drop from 294 million to 275 million journeys in the last five years whilst fares have been hiked up from £1.80 to £2.30, even as diesel prices have fallen to a six-year low. Meanwhile, the Beeching Axe that decimated the rail network in the mid-60s is something that particular form of public transport has never really recovered from in presenting itself as a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine; privatisation of the industry has also contributed to its continuing disappointment when it could, and should, be so much better than it is.

A cursory excursion around the outskirts of most major towns and cities highlights the concessions that have been made to the motorist, with many neighbourhoods that once comprised thriving communities having being bulldozed into mini-motorways oozing bewildering mazes of winding roads to accommodate the nonstop flow of traffic. It can have the effect of making a passenger – or driver (though I fall into the former category) – feel as though he or she is trapped in a 70s JG Ballard novel, a dystopian concrete racetrack with no beginning or end, merely an eternal middle from which there is no escape. But, hey, this is the age in which we live – and drive; and drive; and drive.

© The Editor

THIS IS THE AGE OF THE GRAVY TRAIN

ThomasOf all the nationalised industries that underwent privatisation during the great mania for it in the late 80s/early 90s, one in particular appears to be a loss that the majority of the public regret: the railways. No other industry privatised in this period seems to have suffered as much from the worst aspects of privatisation – where profit is all and customers come a poor second. A chronic lack of investment in maintenance at the expense of ensuring shareholders receive their windfalls has characterised private ownership of the railways over the last couple of decades; and seeking the renationalisation of the railways is one Jeremy Corbyn policy that many outside of the Corbyn cult actually support, including the likes of Peter Hitchens.

Following the highly-publicised sales of BT and British Gas in 1984 and 1986 respectively, state-owned companies such as British Airways, the remainder of British Leyland, British Rail Engineering, British Shipbuilders, British Steel, National Express and Rolls-Royce (nationalised by Ted Heath in 1971) were all privatised on Mrs Thatcher’s watch; the regional water companies were privatised in 1989, followed by a hefty increase in tariffs and reduction in investment, foreshadowing the privatisation of British Rail that took place under John Major’s Government between 1994-97. Major’s predecessor’s avaricious foresight proved to be highly profitable for her successor as Prime Minister when the Government’s remaining shares in BT were sold during a further floatation in 1993, transferring a cool £5 billion into the coffers of the Treasury. Five years after the British Gas sale, British Gas Chairman Robert Evans was revealed to have accepted a 66% pay rise, following a 42% rise in pre-tax profits for the company. There was gold in them thar industries, though not where the public were concerned.

Yes, I accept that distance has made it all-too easy to get nostalgic about British Rail and conveniently neglect to remember the dirty great diesel beasts we travelled on as children, with their dubious hygiene and the appalling food that was the source of long-running gags for TV comedians throughout the 70s and into the 80s. The trains themselves have certainly improved a hell of a lot over the past 20 years, though who’s to say they wouldn’t have anyway, with or without privatisation? Where privatisation has left its most shameful mark on the industry is in the astronomical increases in the price of tickets and the abysmal service many of the franchise holders provide for passengers, with the wretched Southern, in charge of trains covering London and the Home Counties, being the worst current example.

According to recently-released statistics, a mere 20% of Southern trains reached their destinations on schedule in the year from March 2015-March 2016. At one time, Southern ran 2,242 weekday services; at the moment, 350 services are being cancelled a day as inept management struggle to maintain a timetable during ongoing battles with unions in a dispute over driver-operated trains. Management say there are unacceptable levels of sick-leave amongst staff, which they regard as striking in disguise – whereas unions say management are making such accusations to obscure the fact they won’t employ enough guards and drivers as they seek to cut costs. But, as ever, the real losers are the commuters being fleeced for the privilege of (not) travelling with a useless franchise holder like Southern.

The partial collapse of a brick-built Victorian bridge in Leicestershire yesterday thankfully occurred at midnight, when the railway track below it wasn’t being used. However, it quickly emerged that a passenger train had travelled underneath the arches just 20 minutes prior to the collapse. Eyewitnesses claim the trouble began not long after the bridge was closed and Network Rail workmen appeared to undertake some drilling. Residents had reported the poor condition of the bridge for years, one side of which was alleged to be sinking, with the cracking brickwork visible to anyone passing over it; but the belated beginning of patched-up repair work sounds like too little too late. The photos that have been released to the press seem to confirm the bridge was in a perilous state, which makes one wonder why action wasn’t taken earlier. No profit in doing so, perhaps.

What happened in Barrow upon Soar in Leicestershire yesterday could effectively happen on any rail network in Britain. It seems symbolic of an industry that is so blinded by the prospect of making money that its archaic infrastructure is criminally neglected. We are rightly proud of the fact we essentially invented a form of travel in this country that revolutionised the time it takes to get from A to B and played its part in making Britain the premier industrial powerhouse on the planet; but so many laurels have been rested on by those entrusted to run the railways since the Golden Age of the nineteenth century that investment and planning for the future have for far too long been regarded as minor concerns, even before privatisation; we were amongst the last countries in Western Europe to finally dispense with steam, for example (as late as 1968). Privatisation merely appears to have exacerbated many of the problems that were already intact prior to 1994-97.

In retrospect, Dr Beeching’s axe in 1963/4 was the short-sighted solution to clipping the wings of a transport system that was viewed as irrelevant when the government’s crystal ball could only foresee travel in the shape of the private car. On a motorway system today clogged-up with the kind of traffic that simply wasn’t anticipated in the 50s and 60s, the railways are more important than ever; and they should be the pride of the nation – accessible, affordable, and in the hands of the people.

PS: This is something I have touched on before, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek…


© The Editor