Like the rest of the industry, Network Rail is thinking about the future ‘post COVID’. It will be an uncertain world for the whole rail industry, and the challenges it will face are taxing a lot of minds at present.
For Network Rail, the pandemic has actually given it some opportunities. It has been able to close lines while passenger demand was low, doing work it might otherwise not have been able to. Bridges have been replaced, track relayed, tunnels drained, and all without seriously inconveniencing passengers.
The train operators, on the other hand, have had a much tougher time. Ticket revenue has virtually disappeared at times, staff have been furloughed and train laid up. Services that have run – needed to keep key workers employed – have done so with only a handful of passengers aboard.
Most train operators have been financed by the government through various emergency measures – apart from the open-access operators (Hull Trains, Grand Central and Eurostar, which have really struggled.
Freight, on the other hand, has had a mini boom. The nation now shops online, so goods need to be transported from ports to distribution centres. The relative lack of passenger trains has also meant that longer freight trains can be accommodated in between them – at least for the moment.
But once the pandemic ends, or at least becomes manageable, how many passengers will return to the railway? Will working from home become the norm, with only one or two trips a week to the office?
Whatever happens, passenger numbers are likely to remain depressed, so fare revenue will be down and train companies will need continuing support, at a time when government finances are stretched to the limit.
The rail industry – unions, operators, Network Rail and the Department for Transport – have been meeting since January to discuss this situation. These Rail Industry Recovery Group (RIRG) talks are apparently progressing well, and an outcome is expected soon.
However, Network Rail is also starting to have its own talks with staff and representatives, a Business Council. Chief executive Andrew Haines wrote to employees: “The rail industry, and Network Rail, is facing the most serious crisis. Passenger numbers are through the floor and the subsidy being paid by government to keep us afloat is through the roof.
“We already know that this is not going to be fixed when we get past COVID. The shift to working from home for millions of people will continue to present enormous challenges; fares income from passengers is going to be billions of pounds lower for years to come. So we will have to make savings. The question is, can we work together to get through this crisis?
“I know we share a genuine commitment to improve safety, and current systems of work need to be safer for everyone to go home safe every day. The trade unions have recognised, like us, that change needs to happen. A decision to stay as we are is untenable.
“We want to work with colleagues to deliver a railway that is affordable and safe, and we have committed to working with the trade unions to do this. We intend to do our best to agree with the trade unions a way forward that will deliver employment security, improved conditions, a safer and sustainable railway.
“Our next step is to talk to you and our unions about how we will make proposed changes.”
The trade unions reacted negatively to this initiative by Network Rail, believing that the RIRG meetings should reach a conclusion before a single employer made its own arrangements.
“The RIRG is an initiative which is supported by the government, the Department for Transport and employers, including Network Rail,” wrote Manuel Cortes, secretary general of the TSSA. “Frankly, these discussions need to be concluded before we can start discussing any company-specific proposals, as we need industry-wide assurances on a number of issues, including job security for our members. So, today’s announcement by Haines is really done in bad faith.
“Sadly, it appears Network Rail have jumped the gun. Our response to Haines is clear: we aren’t looking for a dispute, but if you don’t back off from putting in place proposals that will result in job losses before we have secured agreement on measures to protect our members, you will get an almighty one!”
Andrew Haines had never actually mentioned job cuts, though any proposal to contain costs could be taken as such. What Haines actually said was: “We don’t have all the answers or all the solutions yet. Our plan is to test ideas, talk with you and your Trades Union representatives and work out together how we respond to the safety and efficiency challenges we face. We will never make changes that make you less safe. We want to involve you.”
The Business Council meeting took place last week. Following it, Tim Shoveller, managing director of Network Rail’s North West and Central route, wrote to employees: “What’s clear is that we all want to get this industry back on its feet, delivering for passengers and freight customers.
“No one denies we’re facing a crisis. We are supporting the industry response to this through the Rail Industry Recovery Group which includes the trades unions, train operating companies and ourselves. We’ll be talking to our trade unions about what this means for Network Rail and do our best to agree a way forward.
“We have great people but many of our practices have not changed for 30 years or more, some since Victorian times. We must modernise so everyone can do the right work, at the right time, supported by the best technology. We will never make changes that make you less safe.
“Modernisation will look different if you are working in an office, or if you are working on track. In all areas we want to remove red tape, cut out activities that don’t add value and provide better training, better designed and secure jobs, and the opportunity to progress your career at Network Rail.
“We know we must change. Today, we have no formal plans or proposals, just ideas. We want to involve you in developing those plans and making changes happen. We will do all we can to protect jobs and look after you, whatever lies ahead.”
Naturally, the words “We have great people but many of our practices have not changed for 30 years or more” can be construed as saying that, as practices change, fewer people will be needed. But that wasn’t stated so plainly.
After the Business Council, Manuel Cortes commented: “TSSA is involved in ongoing talks through the Rail Industry Recovery Group. That is the appropriate place for these industry-wide discussions to take place and it is in the interests of Network Rail and all involved for those talks to be a success. Network Rail has agreed that there will be no specific company proposals until we conclude discussions at the RIRG.”
Obviously, everyone is worried about the future. Income will be down and government expenditure at an all-time high. It is a time to speak frankly, to do what’s best for everyone – workers and industry – and to understand the problem without anyone burying their heads in the sand. The industry needs cooperation rather than confrontation. Hopefully, the members of the RIRG and Business Council can work together to achieve that.