UK February rail strikes in effect, what’s there for freight?

Image: Pixabay. Jon Pauling

After a month of calm, Britain is signalled into a week of renewed strike action on the railways. February started with two strikes, both one day long. The first took place on Wednesday, 1 February, and the second will be on Friday, 3 February. Drivers, mainly from the ASLEF union, are taking action these days. That means disrupted or no passenger services across most of the country for the rest of the week. Freight services remain unaffected for the time being. 

The distracted UK government has made no tangible progress in the long-running series of disputes on the UK railway network. The past week has been spent dealing with one party-political crisis after another while a host of industrial disputes come to a boil. The railways and their seemingly intractable disputes have been pushed into a media siding, but they are still very much on the main line as far as the trades unions are concerned.

Upturned coffee cup economics

The small matter of the record-making round of rail disputes entering a ninth month has hardly made the parliamentary dispatch box this week. Angry words have been exchanged in the House of Commons over the prime minister’s adherence to road safety laws (not wearing his seatbelt) and the former chancellor’s oversight regarding payment of his tax bill – a trifling matter of four million pounds (4,5 million euros). That farce has eclipsed even the ridicule heaped on the present chancellor Jeremy Hunt for attempting to explain economic policy with a few upturned coffee cups.

Anyone feeling that a resolution to the rail disputes has been put to the bottom of Rishi Sunak’s in-tray would be absolutely right. Before dealing with that, the prime minister has to pay his fine for riding in a ministerial car without a seatbelt – an act compounded by shooting a promotional video at the same time, which was broadcast rather more often than his office may subsequently have intended. Then there is the lengthy train of unprecedented strikes by ambulance drivers, nurses, civil servants, university academics, school teachers, midwives, physiotherapists and bus drivers.

Relations in the freight sector

The freight sector of the rail industry continues to be a comparative haven of harmony between employer and employed. The nature of freight operations may be largely behind this. After all, there is no argument over who opens or closes the doors on a freight train. Tickets to travel are generally somewhat more onerous to check for freight, but, then again, there is usually only one of them per train.

A long train of industrial disputes are coming down the line, but the UK prime minister seems preoccupied and the government doesn’t appear able to handle the load. (Image: Wikimedia Commons. © Murgatroyd49)

There is no complacency in the sector either. The functioning industrial relations in the freight industry, depend on the goodwill of both the operators and the unions. There is also the fact that the sector is much smaller than the passenger side of the industry. A normally functioning day may see the British working timetable dominated by passenger services, outnumbering freight movements by a factor of over twenty-five to one.

Ironic anniversary

Eighteen passenger train operating companies in England are either stopped entirely or severely limited. Cross border services into Wales and Scotland are also restricted. Despite this, the government in London has not been as perplexed as in the previous eight months of recourtous dispute. Instead, the government has pushed through an inflammatory parliamentary bill to force wide-ranging powers of imposed minimum service level for certain critical sectors of the economy, limiting the impact of strike action, and making dismissal a valid penalty for breaking the stringent rules.

The new act of parliament has progressed amidst hardly surprising fury among the opposition parties and the unions. It still has to pass the upper chamber, the House of Lords, before it becomes law. That is no foregone conclusion, but if successful, it would severely restrict the right to withdraw labour. Supporters say it merely brings the UK in line with much of Europe. In an ironic twist, all this unrest and disharmony unfolds as Britain doesn’t exactly celebrate the first day of the fourth year, of the post-Brexit era.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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