Welcome to my Blog

I am a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

A wake up call for a realistic energy policy

 This month, I returned to familiar territory when asked to write an overview of UK energy policy as part of a wider European project. Energy policy can be quite parochial, particularly in Scotland, so it was interesting listening to European colleagues who link the issue to broader strategic issues, such as the Russian gas pipeline.

The impact of rising energy prices is a common concern across Europe. UK customers have had some protection due to tariff caps, but these caps increased by 12% in October 2021 and are set to increase in April 2022. The Bank of England expects the cap to rise from its current level by 20% for electricity and 35% for gas, leading to year-on-year energy inflation rates of 31% and 58%, respectively, in April. Others, including energy specialists Cornwall Insight, have predicted even steeper increases. The £2000 plus annual energy bill looks inevitable.

As the IFS highlight, this would lead to a mildly regressive pattern of overall inflation because lower-income households spend almost three times as much of their budgets on gas and electricity as the highest-income tenth on average (11% versus 4%). To this, you can add the impact of benefit cuts and tax rises, all of which disproportionately hit the lower paid. So much for levelling up!

A failing energy market is also not unique to the UK. New entrants have been collapsing like flies, not least because they were ill-equipped to cope with rising gas prices. Even more prominent players like OVO Energy (the third biggest supplier) are in trouble. They announced 1700 job losses today, which is unlikely to do much for their customer service. Already tarnished by advising customers to keep their heating bills low by “having a cuddle with your pets”, eating “hearty bowls of porridge” and “doing a few star jumps”. Ovo took over SSE’s retail operation a couple of years ago.

Reliance on expensive gas imports is another common position, driven by the ‘dash for gas’ in the 1990s by the privatised energy companies. In Europe, that may be addressed by the Nord Stream 2 project, which will bring vast amounts of extra Russian gas into the European market. However, the implications for Ukraine and Russian power more generally is clearly a concern. Brian Wilson reminds us we are paying the price of action and inaction over the past 20 years, “Those whose mission in life was to get rid of nuclear power knew that gas was the realistic alternative, regardless of cost or where it came from. Those who preached renewables and pretended there was not a problem with intermittency that needed to be addressed with equal vigour made the same unspoken assumption.” 

This should all be a wake-up call for further renewable generation and energy efficiency. However, that won't address the immediate challenges. The energy industry has suggested a £20 billion fund to subsidise bills, repaid over ten years. This, of course, assumes prices will return to previous levels, which may be a gamble the Treasury is unwilling to take. Removing VAT and transferring 'green levies' from bills to the taxpayer would save £250 a year for the average householder. Helpful, but just a dent in the projected price rises. A windfall tax on energy producers profits could fund an expansion of the warm homes discount and the winter fuel allowance and reversing benefit cuts and tax increases.

Fossil fuel producers exploit the crisis to warn against a rapid move away from fossil fuels. For environmentalists, the situation highlights the need to accelerate the move away from expensive and volatile fossil fuels. This highlights the failure of COP26 to tackle the fossil fuel status quo. More green investment is required to ensure the future falling fossil fuel production is compensated for by improvements in energy efficiency and rapid growth in clean power generation. Despite some limited actions by the financial markets to discourage fossil fuel investment, producers do not believe demand will disappear. 

The Scottish Government continues to bury its head in the sand over nuclear power. It argues, “Significant growth in renewables, storage, hydrogen and in carbon capture are, in our view, the best way in which to secure Scotland’s future energy needs and to meet our net zero objectives.”. This might be a strategy, except that three out of four elements are some way off at best. Little is happening on storage, which is, in any case, expensive when the alternative is to import English gas and nuclear power when the wind isn't blowing. Hydrogen is not really an option for electricity, it's a better bet for heating and transport, but even that is small scale so far. Carbon capture is a sensible option for industrial processes, but again we have barely reached demonstrator projects.

Meanwhile, Hunterston is closing, leaving us with just one time-limited nuclear plant. Nuclear does have cost issues, but we subsidised other forms of renewables. I have given up explaining on Twitter (well, not quite!) the misleading energy statistics that are so often bandied about. Not least the First Minister claiming almost all electricity used in Scotland comes from renewables. In fact, in 2020, 56% of the electricity consumed in Scotland came from renewable sources, 30% from nuclear (which is also renewable) and 13% from fossil fuels. 

There is no shortage of energy issues to be tackled in Europe and the UK. The short-term solutions are all expensive and are the inevitable consequences of a failure to take a sensible long-term approach to energy policy. They are coupled with too much reliance on market solutions. We need a planned and balanced energy policy. 

Friday, 10 December 2021

The 'poor relation' in railway policy

I was speaking at a European symposium on rail policy this week, providing an update on developments in the UK. It was interesting to hear what other countries were doing post-pandemic. Most are facing similar challenges as passenger volumes, if not freight, struggle to return to pre-pandemic levels. The concerns over the new Omicron variant is adding to those challenges.

In the UK, I explained the immediate UK Government reaction has been a predictable outbreak of short-termism. The Treasury spent an additional £6.5bn on running the railway in 2020-21 to cover lost fare revenue during the pandemic, but that was a drop in the ocean compared with other pandemic costs and should be significantly less this year. Train operators have been told to find savings of 10% while somehow protecting services. With large fixed costs in rolling stock and rail access, cutting staff or reducing terms and conditions is all that is left. As rail historian, Christian Wolmar says, “In the short-term, they are being completely squeezed. It’s incoherent. And it’s going to have a real impact.”

Since June, Unions have been in talks over plans to reduce costs in the industry. Voluntary redundancy schemes have been introduced, but the current agreement to rule out forced job cuts ends on 31 December. The rail unions are understandably expecting the worse and preparing for industrial action. The RMT said: “We’re very clear on the direction of travel, that a massive jobs cull at train operators and Network Rail are coming, as well as an attack on pay and pensions. We’re getting our tanks on the lawn right now.”

In Scotland, ASLEF has shown the way with its call to end “rip-off peak fares” and new investment. Scottish organiser Kevin Lindsay described the Budget as “the first big test” of the Scottish Government’s commitment to meeting its climate targets by “Investing in rail by making fares more affordable, ruling out service cuts, improving accessibility and growing freight infrastructure is of huge importance if we are to take the climate action we need to”. But, sadly, his call fell on deaf ears in the Scottish Government’s somewhat less than ‘bold and ambitious’ budget. The transport section is also pretty opaque when it comes to detail.

Other speakers and I argued that a new funding approach is required until rail use recovers. The UK and devolved governments should invest in rail services or see long-term increased car use, increased carbon emissions and more congestion. The new German government coalition plans to invest more in rail than road, and the Austrian government has introduced a “climate ticket”, giving access to all public transport. While the EU Single European Railway Area was broadly welcomed, the focus should be on breaking down barriers rather than promoting competition, which was likely to lead to the same shambles as energy networks. Despite some criticism of the railways, consumer satisfaction across the EU is quite high at almost 75%. Some £86 billion of EU funds has been allocated to rail investment, reflecting 2021 as the European Year of Rail. Although the pandemic has understandably overshadowed this initiative.

My previous paper had outlined the UK Government’s long-term plans for the railways. The Williams-Shapps plan includes a new “Great British Railways” contracting companies to run services, manage the infrastructure and conduct long-term planning. Since then, the UK Government has decided to slash the plan for more high-speed rail in the north of England, abandoning one leg of the HS2 high-speed rail link. Even the promised £96bn investment is subject to Treasury approval at key stages. With rail fares going up above the inflation rate and fuel duty and air passenger duty held or cut, climate change policy is going in the wrong direction.

We also had the Union Connectivity Review report that seeks to improve transport links between England and Scotland. Predictably, this collapsed into a constitutional bun fight, with the Scottish Government accusing UK ministers of a ‘power grab’. Others at the symposium used to more mature federal systems looked bemused! It has to be said the report was pretty underwhelming. Strong on rhetoric, but little in the way of firm plans.

Integrated transport also came up at the event. A single travel card is pretty standard in European cities, even those with less well-developed economies, as the Herald’s Catriona Stewart found in her trip to Tbilisi and Istanbul. Not to mention London. However, despite many promises, we have barely got past establishing a group to investigate the idea in Scotland. I explained that process is usually more important than action in Scotland.

For the seriously radical, there are free travel schemes. There were mixed views on these. Those countries that tried it argued that while public transport use increased, there was only a modest drop off in-car use. Increasing the cost of parking, congestion charging, or increasing fuel taxes needs to be combined with free fares to lower car demand. Others argued that it was a progressive social policy in its own right, improving access to travel for those who would otherwise be unable to get around.

Not for the first time at a European event, I felt like the poor relation. Our Anglo-Saxon love affair with the market again results in a transport policy that is second-class at best. While public ownership on its own isn’t the complete solution, it would make joined-up solutions that much easier and remove the waste and inefficiency of the profit-driven model.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

The not so 'Great Resignation'

There has been a lot of talk about ‘The Great Resignation’ in the media and HR circles. However, for some sectors, this is not new and certainly predated the pandemic.

I have been doing some HR work this month. If I thought the rail sector had its problems, sorry challenges, mentoring an HR director in the social care sector reminded me what real challenges are! Scotland’s health and social care partnerships (HSCPs) described the challenges of increased demand and staffing shortages as “unprecedented”. And that is reflected in the organisation I have been helping.

The available data does appear to show a general increase in workers looking for new jobs, even if the actual number of resignations are less dramatic. Surveys show a doubling of the normal rate, which at £25,000 a worker in recruitment and training costs, has cost and efficency impacts on employers.

There are several explanations for this ranging from COVID to Brexit. However, a US perspective in The Conversation highlights a different point. Most advanced economies have shifted from productive sectors like manufacturing to a service-based economy. This is significant for turnover because most jobs in service-based industries require generalised occupation skills that are often easily transportable across companies. This is true across various professions, from accountants and engineers to truck drivers and customer services representatives. Therefore, it is relatively easy for employees to move between companies and maintain their productivity.

This is not news in the social care sector, which has the additional challenges of low pay and a job that, while it has its rewards, can also be emotionally and physically demanding. I sat in on a discussion with care workers recently, and there was an obvious difference between older workers who said they would probably struggle on and younger workers who were actively looking for less demanding and better-paid jobs. This reflects my experience doing focus groups for UNISON over many years, and if anything has got worse. Looking at the recent UNISON Scotland survey, 96% reported that their workplace was suffering staff shortages and 90% were concerned about the safety of colleagues and service users. One-third were thinking of leaving, and 57% were close to burnout.

A lot of hope is being invested in the creation of a National Care Service (NCS). In the short term, this is misplaced as organisational change at this scale takes a lot of time. There are also other concerns about the Scottish Government’s direction of travel for the NCS, which I outline in the latest edition of Scottish Left Review. These include the scope of the new service, funding and centralisation. Even the workforce reforms are pretty vague when there is a broad consensus on these. The organisation I have been working with would welcome the reforms recommended in the Feeley Report.

One tricky HR issue we looked at was vaccination. I have to say that I struggle to understand why some workers in the sector refuse to be vaccinated. However, having been through this issue before with flu jags, I am not surprised. Many care workers still do not get sick pay (although there is a sticking plaster scheme in Scotland) and have to take unpaid leave if they experience any temporary side effects. More significantly, for those who are vaccine-hesitant, mandatory jags are likely to be the straw that takes them out of the sector. Despite my personal view, I am not convinced that compulsory vaccination as in England is the right approach. Mandatory vaccinations can only operate in a high trust environment that simply doesn’t exist in many parts of the sector. Persuasion, not pressure, and improving workers’ pay and conditions are the key factors to help to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

Working from home is not an option for care workers, but it has been an issue for HQ functions. A report to Glasgow City Council says office occupancy rates are currently less than half of the UK average, while transport occupancy rates are around 65-70% of pre-pandemic levels. This is already having an economic impact as I see many of the sandwich shops I used to frequent have closed. Most workers want some flexibility in their working patterns, and many employers recognise this with hybrid models of working. What many middle managers said was impossible before the pandemic has now become the new normal. It is not without its problems, and intrusive monitoring is one of them. I had an ‘interesting’ conversation with one middle manager who wanted to introduce such a system. Frankly, if you don’t trust your staff enough work without these, you really need to look at your management skills.

So, spare a thought for those doing some of the most difficult and challenging work in the post-pandemic world. It isn’t easy, and some joined-up public policy would help.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The future is railfreight

In July, I was asked to write an overview of rail policy in the UK for a European think tank. An absolute pleasure for a rail buff like me after working for a union with no railway members. They recently asked me to follow up on railfreight, which is even better, as that is where the real railway is!

Few parts of the railway have changed as much as the freight sector. When I was young, wagonload freights could be seen across the network, even if I am not quite old enough to remember the station goods yards that are now more likely to be car parks. In recent years, the failure of industrial strategy across the UK has seen a decline in the chemicals, metals and manufacturing goods that were routinely carried by rail. And, of course, the massive reduction in coal traffic. One of my favourite work trips was to represent workers at Longannet Power Station, which always involved a look at the fantastic merry-go-round trains coming in from Hunterston.

Hunterston coal in 1989 (Author)

The numbers are pretty staggering. In 1974, over 7800 freight trains ran every day, falling to 1100 by 2003. I was cycling past a local freight siding this week. They have reduced from 3,000 to less than 300 over the same time period. The number of wagons has also been reduced by 90%. That doesn’t mean that freight has disappeared from our railway. It still shifts some 75 million tons a day in 600 freight trains. The average wagonload has more than quadrupled and wagons are used more intensively. 
Factory sidings near Irvine (Author)

The shortage of HGV drivers has rarely been out of the news recently, another post-Brexit warning the UK Government ignored. However, the railway has stepped up to help, something that has been given less coverage. The Office of Road and Rail has published figures that showed a 36.5% increase in railfreight between April and June, compared to the same period in 2020. One in four containers moving to and from our ports are now carried by rail. Phase 1 of the £260m Mossend International Railfreight Park has been given planning approval in Scotland, and this includes sidings capable of handling 775-metre trains. Work has been delayed by the pandemic, but it is scheduled to open in early 2023, handling 16 trains a day, creating 2,700 FT jobs and 2,200 construction jobs. In India, they have just run a 176-wagon freight train; three trains operated as one!

This also matters for tackling climate change. A typical freight train carries the equivalent of 76 HGV’s. Some 7 million lorry loads of freight are moved by rail each year, helping cut traffic jams and pollution. 16% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions came from HGVs in 2019. As Andy Bagnall of the Rail Delivery Group said: “Whether it’s goods or people, to build back better and to create a fair, clean economy for tomorrow, the country relies on a thriving railway. To realise its commitment to net zero by 2050 and support economic growth, government should set an ambitious target to encourage the shifting of goods from road to rail.” Don’t hold your breath, Andy!

Despite the demise of coal, bulk freight is still a vital rail customer. From china clay slurry used in paper whitening just up the road from me in Ayrshire to the five million tons of aggregates and 600,000 tons of cement used in construction. Without railfreight these bulk goods would put a staggering number of heavy lorries onto our roads. Other heavy loads include waste and spoil, oil (including airports), alumina, and rail infrastructure operations like ballast.

Prestwick Airport oil siding receives a delivery (Author)

Arguably the most significant potential growth in railfreight should be inter/multimodal, moving goods by container, mostly from ports to rail terminals. This sector is helping the most with the HGV driver shortage, which points the way to a better and greener future for transport operations in the UK and elsewhere. Felixstowe Docks alone manages more than four million TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) annually.

To move forward, the rail system needs investment in rolling stock and technology, particularly ways of moving and offloading goods. More could be done in supporting businesses to move freight transport from road to rail through the Mode Shift Revenue Support grant scheme, which is very small. Although it still removes a million lorry journeys per year. There are challenges for railfreight, not least the removal of diesel locomotives by 2040. Electric power will not be extended to all freight routes by then, if ever. There are technology solutions, including electro-diesel and potentially hydrogen, but that will require more investment. Some also think that autonomous trucks are the future, but I think that requires a degree of public acceptance that is a long way off.

Research for the Rail Delivery Group shows that a modal shift towards rail freight is essential in decarbonising the freight and logistics sector and wider society. Reductions in carbon emissions can be achieved by facilitating the growth in existing flows, like intermodal and construction materials, and the development of new flows such as parcels and light logistics. The future is rail; it’s now up to the industry and governments to act.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Delivering a fairer society - policy and people.

I am in London this week, mostly doing some research in the National Archives and British Library. However, I spent a day at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, and it was good to meet in person a couple of organisations I have been doing some policy development work with.

Sadly, policy has not been the focus of this conference. Few people like a rule book more than me, and I have written more than a few Labour Party ones. However, last-minute rule changes without any consultation are not a good idea. More importantly, it makes Labour look like it's more interested in internal squabbles than addressing the mess the country is in. This is a decent explanation of what it was all about if anyone cares!

On policy, Angela Rayner made a good start with her plans to introduce sectoral collective bargaining, as Francis O’Grady said, ‘a game changer’. Sadly, not only was it drowned out by the rule change fiasco but later by Andy MacDonald’s resignation. £15 an hour and SSP at the Living Wage looks to me like a practical lesson from the pandemic. I am sure there will be more from Angela on employment issues. She is an excellent example of why we need fewer professional politicians and more with lived experience in harsh workplaces.

Keir Starmer’s Fabian booklet didn’t exactly get rave reviews. However, I have now had a chance to read it, and I don’t have a problem with much of the content. I can see how it reflects what he heard during the summer with his concept of a ‘contribution society’. I voted for him in the Leadership ballot while recognising that he could be viewed as worthy and competent if a bit boring. After the mess Johnson and the Tories have created, a bit of technocratic competence is fine with me. However, Labour needs a bit more of the vision thing, particularly if the strategy is to be statesmanlike in response to the pandemic.

I’m not convinced that this sets out a distinctive alternative vision, certainly not a radical one. It is stronger than the New Labour years, putting obligations on companies to serve society, tackle climate change and be good employers. But banal declarations about the merit of good things is not enough; there needs to be more about how a fairer society can be achieved. The Road Ahead confirms how much thinking still remains to be done.

Hopefully, other policy initiatives launched or passed at the conference signal a move away from the ‘policy light’ strategy that was looking more than past its sell-by date. Moving from the dated business rates system towards a digital tax is something Scottish Labour promoted during the last election and would be helped by action on a UK level. The Green New Deal motion was an important reminder of where the party is when some Shadow Cabinet members give the impression that they favour slower action. Ed Miliband at least still promotes energy nationalisation, something of an open goal given the current crisis you would have thought.

While I am on the policy theme, I will shamelessly plug the latest booklet from the Red Paper Collective, launched during the conference. Shameless because I wrote the chapter on devolving immigration policy. The booklet makes a case for devolving power, not only from Westminster but on to local government. In a series of chapters it details what could make up a third option in any future referendum.

If all this policy is too much for you, I recommend Neil Findlay’s new book, ‘If you don’t run, they can’t chase you.' It’s an inspiring read, which tells the stories of ordinary people who stepped up to become genuine heroes. But, as Neil says, it's about 'people who can’t be chased - because they didn’t run in the first place.' This is why politics is important and why we need a Labour Party that is relentlessly on the side of working people.

Monday, 20 September 2021

National Care Service

The Scottish Government has published a consultation paper on the creation of a National Care Service in Scotland. This follows the Independent Review of Adult Social Care (Feeley report, Feb 2021). Many of us with long experience in the sector welcomed the Feeley Report while expressing concerns about over-centralisation and funding.

The paper seeks views on the scope of the NCS, which goes further than adult social care to include children's services, alcohol and drugs, mental health, criminal justice social work and all community health services, including general practice. Ministers will be accountable for social work and social care, leaving local government as simply another service provider. The mixed economy of care will continue with services commissioned from health boards, councils, third and private sector providers. Workforce regulation and inspection services will remain independent of the NCS.

The NCS will set the commissioning framework, including pay and conditions and outcomes. Complex and specialist services will be commissioned centrally with others commissioned locally by new Community Health and Social Care Boards (replacing the IJBs), directly funded by the Scottish Government. The CEO will report to the NCS. There will be national workforce quality standards to help deliver Fair Work principles, which could include a 'Fair Work Accreditation Scheme'. In addition, the consultation seeks views on national sector-level collective bargaining arrangements as recommended by the Feeley Report. 

I was involved in drafting the SHA Scotland response to the consultation and broadly agreed with the concerns they set out, which include:
  • It will take a significant amount of time to implement organisational change of this magnitude. In the meantime, the system is in crisis now. In particular, we have a demoralised, tired, and financially stretched frontline staff who immediately need a break, decent pay and a vote of confidence.
  • The scope of the NCS is too broad. The range of services removed from local democratic accountability will damage integration. For example, separating children's services from education makes no sense, and social Work is also a local service with essential links to community activity that will be undermined by the dead hand of ministerial intervention. It will also create new barriers to shifting resources from acute to community services as health boards focus on acute services.
  • The proposals involve a high degree of centralisation, giving ministers new powers that effectively remove local democratic accountability - rebranding IJB's (again) with even less local accountability. This approach is contrary to the Christie Commission principles and the recent legislation on the European Charter of Local Self Government. Moreover, the lessons from previous centralisations (e.g. Police Scotland) have clearly been ignored.
  • The workforce proposals are less than firm. Trade unions have long argued for national collective bargaining supported by job evaluation and comprehensive workforce planning. Only those providers who meet that standard should be considered for service commissioning. The current Fair Work initiative suffers from a lack of enforcement, as set out in the recent Jimmy Reid Foundation paper. The Scottish Government has all the levers required to achieve better outcomes in the social care sector.
  • The proposals effectively retain the marketisation of social care with the inclusion of for-profit services. It does not address the growing involvement of private equity, hedge funds and real estate investment trusts in the care sector and the use of predatory financial techniques. Let alone look seriously at the lessons of the pandemic for the future provision of residential care. 
  • The funding arrangements are inadequate for the scale of the challenges facing social care now. The NHS has a £1billion recovery plan, but there is no equivalent plan for social care. In fact, there are no costings in the consultation on the development of the NCS or how it is to be funded. 
  • The UK Government plans to fund an increase in social care spending, including addressing accommodation costs, by raising national Insurance (NI). This is the wrong approach, placing the burden on working people. However, the Scottish Government’s funding plans also fail to address these issues. £840m barely meets the current funding deficit, let alone improve services. Audit Scotland's analysis shows that spending on adult social work care needs to rise incrementally from £4.35bn in the next financial year to £7.66bn in 2034.
  • Most western European countries have implemented some funding reforms in recent years, while the UK's means-tested care funding remains broadly unchanged. The pandemic has also highlighted social care challenges across Europe. The proposals in the consultation simply increase the financial support.
  • The consultation gives little consideration to the broader impact of social care and has only limited support for unpaid carers. Post-pandemic, there is also an opportunity to create a caring economy by linking the NCS to a wider economic strategy. This was promised in the Gender Pay Gap Plan back in 2018, but not for the first time; bold statements are not followed through with action.
Creating a National Care Service remains the right approach. However, its role should be to create a national framework, with services designed and delivered locally. I agree with COSLA that this represents a direct attack on localism and on the rights of people to make and benefit from decisions taken locally.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

UK rail policy in transition

One of the many things I enjoyed about working for UNISON was the range of issues we covered. While some days I wished I worked for a single industry union, it was rarely dull! However, I have always loved railways, and that was an industry we didn't cover. So, when a European think tank asked me to write an overview of UK rail policy as part of a Europe wide paper, I jumped at the chance.


I wrote the paper at a time when the industry is potentially entering a period of significant change. The UK Government has published the Williams/Shapps plan for rail, ‘Great British Railways’.  The Scottish government has followed the Welsh government lead and announced the Dutch firm Abellio would stop running the ScotRail franchise at the end of March 2021. After this, an "arms-length" Scottish government company will take over the running of services. This highlights the different approaches devolved governments can take, although non-ScotRail services in Scotland, the sleeper and main lines to England will still come under the UK plan.

The UK plan concedes that the privatised railway wasn’t working before the pandemic. Not a small concession from a Tory government, but difficult to avoid given the timetable shambles and the East Coast franchise debacle. The pandemic is the primary driver for change. As commuters made up 47% of all rail passengers, a further 10% travelled for business meetings, and 5% were shopping. In other words, around two-thirds of passengers were using the railways for purposes that now face potentially permanent change. The plan makes further commitments, including “a modern, improved experience for both freight customers and passengers and zero carbon trains. We are growing the network, not shrinking it.” However, they also say the current sums being paid to operate and maintain the railways are not sustainable. So, change has to be done on the cheap, as many of the costly aspects of privatisation remain unchanged. They anticipate that system simplification alone will save around £1.5 billion a year, equivalent to 15% of the network’s pre-pandemic fares income.


A new public body, Great British Railways, will own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables. Great British Railways aims to simplify the current confusing mass of tickets, but it will contract with private companies to operate trains to the timetable and fares it specifies. This is similar to the system used by Transport for London (TfL) on its successful Overground and bus networks.


It remains to be seen if this plan ushers in a “new golden era for the railways”. Industry groups gave the ambition a cautious welcome but highlighted the lack of detail. The rail unions were more scathing. ASLEF’s Mick Whelan said: 'Under these plans the private companies will still pocket a profit, but all the risk – the revenue risk – is being dumped back on the public purse. The government is changing the model but protecting the privateers, and privatising any profit. We believe in a great British railway – in the public ownership of a public service – where the wheels and steel – the locomotives, carriages, and the rails on which they run – are brought back together in a vertically-integrated operation to benefit businesses and passengers.”. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said, “If the government were serious about recognising ‎the impact of failed rail policy down nearly three decades, they would cut out the middleman, strip away the dead weight of the private companies and work with their staff on building a transport system fit for the future where investment in the workforce and infrastructure comes first.”


The unions were much more welcoming of the devolved administrations' approach. TSSA's Manuel Cortes said, “The COVID-19 pandemic made it abundantly clear that our railways are a public service, not a piggy bank for fat cat shareholders. And Welsh Labour showed the way when they nationalised the railways earlier this year.”


Significant though these changes are, many other issues need to be addressed. I covered many of these in my paper, including:

  • The pandemic has not gone away. I write this blog post on a train to London with two different sets of rules on the wearing of masks. No longer compulsory once we reached Carlisle, although patchily observed in Scotland. The failure of rail operators to publish research on COVID risks is not encouraging.

  •  Delivering rail on the cheap also brings other safety concerns. The 30th anniversary of the Newton rail disaster reminds us of the consequences. As ASLEF’s Kevin Lindsay said, “It is vitally important that we work, every day, to improve the safety of our railway and do nothing to compromise the safety of passengers and staff."

  • The UK’s transport emissions have hardly changed for three decades, despite fuel efficiency improvements and the recent rise of electric vehicles. Transport accounts for 28% of the UK’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The UK transport decarbonisation plan is again strong on rhetoric but weak on implementation detail. Full electrification of the railways is some way off and probably unachievable for rural lines. So, more work is needed on carbon capture of diesel engines and other solutions like battery trains. Sadly, this includes my beloved steam engines, which at least are now being built in Scotland. This is after all Love Your Railways week, which aims to raise awareness of every heritage railway across the country.

  • The financial consequences of the pandemic have been highlighted in the Public Accounts Committee report on the English rail system. The need to deliver affordable rail fares will be critical in getting passengers back onto the railways. For example, Scots travellers can pay up to 70% more to travel by train than the plane, particularly on cross-country journeys.

  • We also need to link railways to an industrial strategy. The Welsh Government developed an industrial strategy for building at least half of all new trains in Wales, but Scotland or the rest of the UK has no equivalent. The risk is that we repeat the shambles of failed procurement policies in the renewable energy sector. Rail freight also needs to be able to operate on a level playing field with passenger services.

Policy responses to the pandemic put some vital sticking plasters in place, but there are some real 'where next?' questions to answer. These will have significant implications for the balance between public transport, cycling, walking and the car - and how we achieve a rapid transition to a zero-carbon transport system. For railways, the solution is best summed up by ASLEF, “The only sensible way to run our railway is with wheels and steel together, with public ownership and operation.”

Keir Hardie understood this more than a century ago!