The first national rail strike for 16 years has been announced by the RMT union, coming into effect after Easter. The strike will last four days and has been designed to cause maximum chaos for Britain’s commuters who will be returning to work after the Easter bank holiday weekend.
The strike is a result of the ensuing row over job losses and changes to working practices, which are aimed to achieve efficiency savings at Network Rail. Signallers, maintenance workers and supervisors will strike from April 6 unless a last minute deal can be struck with managers.
Previous research has highlighted just how much public money is spent on the rail system, compared to the road network, which carries twelve times as many people. A good commentary in today Times by Tom Winsor - Rail Regulator 1999-2004- highlights just how expensive the railways have become:
“Facing regulatory pressure to cut its costs by £5 billion over the period 2009-14, Network Rail — the company that owns and runs the rail infrastructure — needs to achieve efficiency improvements of 21 per cent in the next four years, on top of the 31 per cent efficiency requirement I imposed for the period 2004-09.”
Winsor goes on to suggest that years of underinvestment have taken its toll on the rail network. However when you look at the figures, taxpayer spending on the rail system between 1999 and 2004 went from £4.8 billion to £7.4 billion. In fact in 2007-08 rail spending was almost equal to road spending at £8.2 billion and £8.3 billion respectively. The point of under investment is rather redundant.
Clearly network rail managers and officials have come to realize that network rail should use the large funds of taxpayers’ money it receives more effectively and provide a more efficient rail service. And with public finances in dire straits hopefully the penny has dropped that taxpayers’ money is not a bottomless pit or one that should fund inefficient transport systems. Technological advances hold the key for efficiency savings desperately needed on the rail system. As Winsor points out:
“machines and computers can achieve higher asset condition and performance than have been possible with men walking the track, bashing it with hammers and sedately ambling along behind trundle wheels.”
Unfortunately it appears that the unions have not yet grasped this concept. It has been calculated that “A national signallers’ strike will cost Network Rail £10 million a day in financial compensation to the train operators.” And because Network Rail is largely funded by the taxpayer the financial hit will be taken entirely by the British public. Winsor highlights that strikes would be virtually impossible if network rail were properly privatized:
“In the days of Railtrack and the 1994 strike, the RMT knew that this could wipe out shareholders’ annual profits in a fortnight.”
In fact union leaders argued that because the Treasury pours billions and billions of taxpayers cash into the railways Lord Adonis bore ultimate responsibility for the network and a settlement could lie in the Government’s hands. Let’s hope the government chooses the right side, realising that the taxpayers who fund the rail system deserve to see every effort made to make sure that Network Rail delivers the best value for money it can. Not to mention the need to cut spending to deal with a crisis in the public finances.
To top it all off the roads are also set to be seriously disrupted by these strikes as Easter commuters look to other modes of transport to get around. The Highways Agency is already planning to lift as many roadworks as possible to try to alleviate the worst of the congestion.