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THE May 2018 rail timetable changes became the straw that broke the camel’s back.
What should have been an orderly, scheduled transition, with no more than an odd but anticipated hiccough, has become a national rail disaster.
Some 4,000 trains were cancelled from the Northern Rail schedule alone in the space of a few days.
That’s without counting the trains that never made their final destination and have made no-one’s score sheet. It’s not just Northern. Our reps at Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) tell me there were no negotiations to change staff rosters to synchronise with the new timetables. Little wonder that 455 GTR services were cancelled or delayed in just one day last week.
Our reps at Southern report passengers experience eight cancelled trains in a row, followed by a late one.
Problems have been exacerbated by incomplete route knowledge training, without which drivers can’t legally drive. Then there are logistical issues such as drivers reporting for work at the correct station but there is no train for them to drive.
But the root cause of the biggest disruption caused to our railway timetables in British peacetime history is the privatisation model itself.
As rail unions warned at the time of the rush to privatisation in the mid-1990s, this privatisation project was always doomed to fail passengers.
Separating our tracks from our trains, the fragmentation of our rail network into competing rail franchises, hiving off every possible penny towards shareholder dividends, in the end, conspired to create the perfect storm.
Our “shambolic privatised railways,” as Jeremy Corbyn called them at Prime Ministers Questions this week, have simply collapsed.
The economic damage that ripping up the timetables is causing our towns and cities because cannot get to work will run into billions in lost productivity.
Workers who have paid king’s ransoms for season tickets are taking annual leave rather than spend another day at a station not knowing whether they can make work on time nor get home once they get there.
We need a radical solution. But Tory Transport Secretary Chris “Gridlock” Grayling is left looking as imperious and as out-of-touch as Nero as he continues to fiddle his boring anti-union tune while the rail empire he is charged with cherishing burns.
In an unprecedented response to Grayling’s failure to get a grip, normally commercially rival northern newspaper titles collectivised to announce in all their editorials midweek: “Following a period of unprecedented misery and upset for thousands of people, caused by a broken railway, the regional press across the north of England is today making a historic united stand to demand: enough is enough.”
Northern papers now resemble a 1917 edition of Pravda as they urge their readers to rise up against their inert government. I’m sure Morning Star readers will be happy to support our now common cause of access to basic transport rights. You can sign their petition here.
In giving vent to the spleen of their readers’ contempt for Tory Northern Powerhouse rhetoric, the class consciousness of our northern newspapers is now ahead of Metro Mayor Andy Burnham and many other Labour politicians.
Of course we support Burnham’s demand for a substantial package of compensation for season ticket holders and fare reductions on routes affected by the emergency timetable.
However, this is not enough and risks aping Grayling’s “bung the proles a few bob and shut the buggers up” bribe.
It’s miles from the popular public ownership solution for our railways proposed by Labour at the last election.
Neither is it an antidote to the privatised chaos that is exposing our TSSA members at rail stations to the brunt of passenger frustrations.
Our members in ticket offices and gatelines are reporting a huge spike in workplace stress because commuters are angry with train companies making them late for work. I’ve heard of one of our members being screamed at by parents whose children boarded a train to get to school which got rerouted, leaving their kids stranded. Not safe.
Students are also angry that these changes came into place during peak exam time.
Our members’ misery is compounded by lack of support from their employers. Make no mistake, stress-related sickness will be the next problem coming down the line. This will exacerbate the understaffing crisis across train operating companies which this timetable crisis has now laid bare.
Corbyn will be greeted like a conquering hero when he comes to Leicester to address our TSSA conference this afternoon due to his long commitment to public ownership of our railways.
His manifesto pledge to bring back in-house expiring franchises is the only way to retrieve our railways from the rot caused by privatisation and bringing them home from ownership outsourced by the Tories to any government but a British one.
At the despatch box on Wednesday, Jeremy asked Theresa May: “Which will last longer, the Northern Rail franchise or her premiership?” I know where the money of our TSSA members in Northern is.
A general election is now the necessary catalyst needed if we are to save our railway. Our conference will discuss the serious business of rescuing our country from this Tory-made rail disaster and Labour winning an autumn election. Bring it on.
Manuel Cortes is general secretary of TSSA.
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