Mick Whelan is General Secretary of major transport union ASLEF, which represents train drivers. He wrote the following open letter after picking up a copy of the launch issue of the Times of Tonbridge – new sister paper to the Times of Tunbridge Wells
I love newspapers – especially good local newspapers which are such an important part of the communities they serve – and that’s why I was so pleased to see the launch this month of the Times of Tonbridge. I picked it up last Wednesday – it was being handed out at the railway station and, as the general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers’ trade union, I spend a lot of time on and around the rails – and it made for a very good read on my way into Charing Cross. The Times of Tunbridge Wells is very popular and I think the Times of Tonbridge will emulate the success of its sister title. Both papers treat their readers, in the communities of which they are a part, as grownups – which is refreshing in this day and age – with lots of news and views about what is going on in this part of Kent.
My attention was drawn, first, as you might imagine, to the front page interview with Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP for Tonbridge & Malling, and his criticisms of the service provided to passengers in his constituency by Southeastern. He isn’t alone, of course, in condemning the company.
A recent report by the consumer group Which? named and shamed Southeastern as Britain’s worst train operating company. A survey published in their magazine revealed that passengers in the south east of England are the least satisfied in the UK. Overcrowding, poor value for money and dirty trains were the most common complaints. And commuters forced to stand in the toilets because of ‘crazy’ overcrowding on peak time Southeastern services into St Pancras complained of an ‘omnishambles’ and called for the renationalisation of Britain’s railways. Scores of passengers vented their anger on social media. One, Hannah Holdstock, Tweeted: ‘Chaos. We pay an awful lot of money to travel into London, for them to not be able to run these trains. Pretty disgusting.’
I don’t like to hear such complaints because I love Britain’s railways. I believe in our railways. And I’ve spent pretty much all my working life on Britain’s railways. After a short spell working in a bank, in London, when I left school, I joined what was then British Rail, as a guard, in 1984. When I became a driver, in 1988, I joined ASLEF. I was elected organiser for the Midland region in 2000 and then general secretary in 2011. So I’ve spent 32 years, in one role or another, on the iron road. I’ve been at the front of the train, as well as the back of the train, and I’ve worked on freight trains as well as on passengers trains. I have talked – and still talk – to people who work in all sorts of different jobs on the railway, here and abroad, as well as to passengers and politicians.
I know how important rail is to this country and my union has always been keen to help build a better, more modern railway fit – for passengers as well as for staff – for the 21st century. But I share many of the frustrations voiced by Tom Tugendhat, and the readers of the Times of Tonbridge and the Times of Tunbridge Wells, who travel on Southeastern.
The truth is that we are, to some extent, victims of the success of the great Victorian railway pioneers. Those engineers who built the steam engines, railway tracks, bridges and tunnels – we all learned their names at school – did a brilliant job but much of our infrastructure is now 150 years old, some of it even older, and it shows. The system is creaking. Those countries who came later to the great railway party have much more modern rolling stock, signalling, and lines.
We are also the victims of short-term thinking and short-term planning. As politicians often mutter when I talk to them about the importance of developing a strategic vision for our railways, and of proper long-term planning for our industry – by which I mean looking 30, 40 and 50 years ahead – ‘In the long term, Mick, we’re all dead’. Politicians tend to think in five-year cycles – the length of a Parliamentary term – but the railway rarely runs to that sort of timetable.
The fragmentation of Britain’s railways has undermined our purpose, too. Southeastern, like most of the privatised train operating companies, does not employ enough drivers to deliver the services it pledged, in its franchise application, to run. It’s all to do with cost; the fewer the drivers the company employs, the more money it makes. But Southeastern is dependent on every driver turning up for work. Whenever there is sickness, holiday, or, as sadly happens too frequently in this industry, a fatality – a suicide – the TOCs are stretched and cancel trains.
The train companies want to keep their costs down, and their fares up, to make as much profit as possible. That’s why they cram in as many commuters as they can during the rush hour. They are not in the business of providing a public service but of making as much money as possible.
On every measure put forward by John Major when, as Prime Minister, he privatised our railways 20 years ago, privatisation has failed. Fares, and public subsidies, have soared – we now have the highest fares in Europe – while trains have got more crowded. If our railways were brought back into public ownership a commuter paying £5,000 for an annual season ticket to travel from Kent into London would be £1,000 better off. That’s why survey after survey shows that even Conservative voters are fed up – not just with the service provided by Southeastern and Southern – but with the profits made by foreign-owned companies which take no risk – they enjoy private monopolies and know commuters have no alternative but to pay what they ask – and then take those profits offshore. East Coast, when it was in public ownership, returned £1billion to the Treasury and the taxpayer.