With five continuous days of rail strikes this week, it’s beginning to look like we’re reaching an endgame. Someone, or something, has got to give. And it must be becoming gradually clear to the RMT’s Mick Lynch – and the other unions involved – that they won’t necessarily be the ones left standing at the end. They might like to think they have the power to bring the country to its knees, but the past few months has shown the folly of believing that. Even before the current strikes, rail passenger numbers were only three-quarters of what they were before the pandemic. All sorts of organisations have learned to work remotely when they need to. Nor, in contrast to the 1970s, do we rely on coal trains to keep power stations working. The only growth in rail travel at the moment is for leisure. London theatres and restaurants are suffering deeply, but that won’t bring down the economy.
These are the essential statistics showing why no government could agree to above-inflation pay rises for rail workers. For starters, they already get paid well: the median salary for a rail worker is £43,747 – £10,000 more than for the workforce as a whole. Yet this is no boom industry. In the year to March, the taxpayer coughed up £13.3 billion in subsidies, while the rail industry took just £5.8 billion in ticket revenue.
An unnamed government source was quite right to warn the unions yesterday that their strikes are an act of ‘self-harm’ – that the loss of passengers from the railway will accelerate as a result. But it would be far better if the government started a wider debate: do we still need railways at all? And if so, what sort of an industry do we need? I have never been a fan of the idea sometimes advanced in Conservative circles that we should pave over railway lines and convert them into express coach-ways. But