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Editorial: Westminster and Holyrood's records on rail undermine their climate boasts

IF ONE sector can be said to show up the gulf between government rhetoric and reality on climate change, it is the railways.

And for all the Scottish government’s posturing as an enlightened alternative to the Tories at Westminster, the Scotrail mess shows that it, too, is unwilling to walk the walk when it comes to investment in a greener future for transport.

It is absurd that, on the eve of a global summit on addressing the climate emergency, the RMT union has to warn that it is ready to “fight for every job” because the Rail Delivery Group, representing train firms, is seeking to cut thousands of posts across the industry.

Operators from South Western Railway to Scotrail plan new timetables with far fewer services, with the latter looking to cut 300 services a day even when it transfers to public ownership next year. 

The excuse — that passenger numbers have fallen significantly during the pandemic — encapsulates the short-termism that has stymied all attempts to reshape British infrastructure on greener lines.

It also bears a whiff of the institutional nihilism that disfigures so many privatised services — with bosses seeing their role as managing decline while siphoning off as much money as possible rather than building and reforming services to meet future social need.

Clearly passenger numbers are down because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. It is also quite possible that this may lead to longer-term shifts in passenger habits, with more home working cutting numbers on peak-time commuter services.

How such trends might affect railway use is still far from clear, though — with one obvious caveat. Reduce capacity and reduced numbers become a foregone conclusion.

If the governments at Westminster or Holyrood were serious about reducing emissions, they would be directing their every effort in the opposite direction. 

Railways should be a growth industry in this country. The European Environment Agency reckons rail travel emits just 14 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger mile — less than a tenth of the 158 gram figure for travelling in a car and less than a twentieth of the 285 grams for travel by air.

Cutting emissions in transport requires a massive shift of journeys from road to rail. But achieving that means making rail travel cheap and convenient — which means investing in increasing services, not cutting them back.

That is without mentioning the environmental case for shifting freight from lorries to trains, which again necessitates expansion, or the role proper investment in high-speed rail for long-distance routes can play in reducing domestic air travel — something demonstrated in China following the rollout of its high-speed network.

Anti-union propaganda, which suffuses the print and broadcast media, tries to divorce the question of service provision from that of appropriate staffing, depicting transport staff in particular as a costly burden and unstaffed services as a means of reducing costs — and therefore making travel easier. 

But the opposite is the case. People will not travel by rail unless doing so is accessible and safe. Staffing cuts make it harder for people with disabilities to use services and correlate with higher levels of anti-social behaviour and rising crime.

Public opinion is softened up by regular media stories trying to stoke resentment at wages in the sector. Besides focusing on atypical examples at the highest end of the scale, these are a classic divide-and-rule tactic aimed at turning workers against each other when the reality is that attacks on pay and conditions in any sector tend to drive down standards across the economy as a whole.

The reality is that investing in the future of our railways means investing in staff. Governments cannot be allowed to boast about their green credentials while cutting services — or while denying workers the pay they deserve.

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