Ross Clark

If Labour want cheaper fares then getting rid of train staff is a good place to start

If Labour want cheaper fares then getting rid of train staff is a good place to start
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Another day, another uncosted bribe from Labour. This time, Corbyn is promising to slash a third off rail fares and allow children to travel for free. What wonderful, munificent people we have putting themselves forward to lead us. And of course, it won’t cost the taxpayer an extra penny because, as Labour’s transport spokesman, Andy McDonald, said this morning, it is all coming from a ‘repurposed’ pot of money – money raised through vehicle excise duty, which had been earmarked for road-building.

Except, of course, road-building is capital expenditure and subsidising rail fares is current spending. For all its guff about investing in Britain’s future, what Labour is proposing is a sly trick to rob investment spending and blow it on day-to-day spending. Fare cuts and free travel for the under 16s is not the only way that Labour’s renationalised railway would quickly run into trouble. The party is also proposing to put a guard on every train – reversing modernisations that began under British Rail in 1982. It would be nothing but an extremely expensive job creation scheme to please the unions. This morning the RMT has been trying to tell its usual old fib about driver-only operated (DOO) trains being dangerous. Both the Office of Rail and Road and the Rail Safety and Standards Board have reviewed the evidence on DOO and ruled that they are safe. In fact, the RSSB came to the conclusion that, in some respects, DOOs are safer because they eliminated the danger of a failure of communication between driver and guard.

Around a third of trains on the UK rail network are now DOOs. Among them are some of the busiest trains – such as the entire London Underground system. It is, therefore, outrageous for the RMT to make out – as its assistant general secretary did on the Today programme this morning – that DOOs are unsafe because, it claims, 80 per cent of serious incidents occur on trains where DOOs are used. There is a slight difference between the number of passengers using the Bakerloo and those using branch line services where a guard is put on the train to check the tickets. Comparing like for like, Transport for London found that incidents involving passengers and train doors fell on sections where it introduced DOO.

The RMT doesn’t even like it when a rail company does agree to keep guards on trains – that is the issue behind the month-long strike on South Western Trains, which is going ahead in spite of the rail company having already caved in to the unions and agreed to keep the guard. The RMT is now bleating that the guards won’t be in control of opening and closing the doors.

If we want fares as low as possible, we are only going to achieve that by increasing productivity – not reducing it as Labour is intent on doing. Combined with the party's promise of a 32 hour working week, I don’t know where Labour would find the staff to run its great unionised train set – other than by slashing the number of trains. In other words, we’ll have lower fares but higher taxes and fewer trains.

The Conservatives should respond to Labour’s gimmick by promising to invest in more technology that would allow guards and, in many cases, drivers to be removed from trains too. There are over 60 rail networks across the world that operate fully automated lines with no guards or drivers. I don’t see why ours shouldn’t be among them. It would mean far lower running costs, allowing fares to be reduced – as well as ending the menace of endless strikes.