‘New year shock’ continues for UK rail commuters and workers

British commuters and rail workers have protested the hike in rail fares as well as the government’s inaction on guaranteeing job security for railway guards

January 04, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
UK annual railfare hike
RMT workers protest at London’s Kings Cross railway station against the “rip-off” rail fare hike.

Rail commuters and workers in the UK are organizing their indignation against railway authorities in the country who they believe extort and exploit both passengers and employees with fare hikes while also suppressing workers’ rights.

This year, fares increased across the board by an average of 2.7 % and commuters will have to pay as much as £132 more for their seasonal tickets in 2020. However, fare hikes have not translated into tangible benefits for rail workers who complain that the government has yet to take action over the issue of job security for railway guards, despite a months-long strike in the South Western Railway (SWR) led by the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT). 

Thursday, January 2, was observed as the National Day of Action against the New Year’s rail fare rise, organized by the Association of British Commuters (ABC) and other groups, including Bring Back the British Rail, We Own It, Nor4Nor, Northern Resist and Get Glasgow Moving.

Regarding Thursday’s protest, ABC stated that “at a time when rail franchising is quite clearly collapsing, 2.7% fare rise is an outrage. It’s another sign that the government and industry will continue to treat us like a captive market, meaning that we’re continually paying more while constantly receiving less.”

The annual rail fare hike has become a regular New Years shock for commuters in the UK, even mocked as the ‘Great British Train Robbery’. The unions cite that the privatization of the UK rail is the reason for this annual rise in fares. British commuters and rail unions had protested a 3.1% hike in the rail fares last year on January 2, as well.

Rail workers and unions including the RMT have also expressed frustration over the UK rail authorities’ insensitivity after the South Western Railway (SWR) strike in December of last year. The strike was intended to resolve the long-pending dispute over the role of railway guards. 

Since April 2016, the RMT has been running a ‘Keep the guard on the train, Keep the train safe’ campaign against the planned introduction of driver-only operation (DOO) by several train operating companies, which abolishes the role of the train guard in operating passenger train doors. Trade unions claim that the implementation of DOO will slash the jobs of hundreds of guards currently working in this field. Even though a number of protests have been organized over this issue, the dispute remains unresolved.

On January 1, RMT general secretary Mick Cash stated, “It is extraordinary and unprecedented that throughout this latest phase of action SWR have made no effort whatsoever to get talks back underway with the objective of‎ negotiating a settlement despite repeated calls from the union. We detect the dead hand of their paymasters, the Government, who have been happy to ladle out tens of millions of pounds in public money in subsidies to the company to fuel their own union-busting agenda. That is a disgrace.”

“The union executive will now consider the next steps in this dispute but be in no doubt, the fight for a railway where safety comes before profits go on,” he added.

In addition, after the government’s proposal of stripping Arriva from the Northern Rail franchise, RMT and other unions have also stressed on their demand for the re-nationalization of the British railways. The privatization of British Rail was initiated by Conservative prime minister John Major in 1994 and completed by 1997, under the European Union Directive 91/440 of 1991. British Railways had remained a nationalized body under the control of the British Railways Board since 1948, when the four big companies operating the railways were taken over by the Labour government of the day.

Following the findings of the British Parliament’s Committee of Public Accounts Report of April 2018, on the incompetence of privatized railway companies that run trains on publicly owned tracks, UK unions have been calling for the re-nationalization of railways.