Reading the Government’s Williams-Shapps Rail Review is like watching someone say they’re too hot in a jumper and deciding to put on an overcoat. The report slams the inefficient ways the rail industry is organised, especially the ridiculous “delay attribution” industry that results from the privatised system. But then it proposes more of the same, and worse.
The key news is that Network Rail is to be abolished and replaced by “Great British Rail”. It is not exactly clear but this appears to be the same kind of pseudo public body as before. It will expand to encompass many of the functions currently performed by the Rail Delivery Group, and some formerly performed by the private train operators.
Train Operating Companies and Freight Operating Companies will be replaced by private contractors. GBR will take on the fares and manage the timetables but sub-contract out the actual running of trains. The report highlights that this will mean the wasteful process of delay attribution can end, but it also means a new wasteful process of contract tendering and arbitration can begin. If a train is delayed, GBR will be responsible for holding the contractor to account; in practice it’s not clear what this will involve beyond the same old delay attribution process we already have.
Staff working for operators will still remain employed entirely by the private sector, but now all the decisions about how services are run will be made by the new GBR. This will make it harder for staff working for operators to fight job cuts and other attacks. The anti-union laws mean we can only take industrial action against our direct employer. We can strike against the operating companies we work for, but it won’t make much difference if GBR is making the cuts.
And attacks do seem inevitable. In a section of the report entitled “Empowering Rail’s people” one of the first sentences highlights that pay in the rail sector has risen faster than inflation in recent years. It promises a further review of how to rectify that situation. It proposes a year on year saving of £1.4 billion from these reforms. It is hard to see how else these savings are envisaged other than staff costs.
Some of the biggest changes are proposed for stations, which are currently managed by the private operators. After this review, they would be managed by GBR. This is coupled with a proposed simplified ticket system, similar to contactless pay as you go in London. Given the push for lower staff costs elsewhere in the report it is likely this will translate to ticket offices closing.
We cannot wait on organising until these plans to become concrete. After the McNulty report recommended cutting Guards’ jobs, the rail unions waited for each employer to attack before starting to fight, even though we all knew the attacks were coming. We must organise now to demand a fully nationalised railway network, no job cuts, and decent pay and conditions for all across the sector.