RMT activists on a picket line during a strike against driver-only operation on Southern, which operates commuter services to London. The RMT ultimately lost this dispute, but drove back similar moves from other train operating companies in Britain.
RMT activists on a picket line during a strike against driver-only operation on Southern, which operates commuter services to London. The RMT ultimately lost this dispute, but drove back similar moves from other train operating companies in Britain.
Photo: Andrew Wiard

Britain’s recent rail strikes mark the first time since 1989 that workers across the entire network have been in dispute with their employers. But for much of the past decade, passengers across the country have faced severe disruption thanks to industrial unrest. Guards on Northern, the franchise which covers much of the north of England, were in dispute for an entire year, while a parallel clash on Southern, which operates commuter services south of London, lasted even longer.

What would motivate any group of workers to take such sustained strike action? After all, striking is a risky business: there are no guarantees of winning, you may be disciplined by management for taking part and each day you are on strike is a day’s pay lost.

Like others in the wave of strikes between 2016 and 2020, the Northern dispute related to the attempted removal of guards (otherwise known as ‘conductors’ and ‘train managers’). Among guards’ most important responsibilities are the closing of doors to ensure a safe departure from stations, checking tickets and interacting with passengers. Northern, and other operators, claimed that it was no longer necessary for guards to perform the first of these duties. With new technology such as strategically placed cameras, the driver could dispatch the train safely, leaving the guard free to pay more attention to customers.

The union representing guards, the RMT, knew very well that taking away the responsibility of door closure and dispatch was really a plan to cut guards from services in order to save money. The government played its usual role of standing above the dispute. In fact, the staff cuts were part of Northern’s franchise contract with the government. Effectively, it had to cut staff or risk being financially penalized. What is more, train operating companies are fully compensated for lost income in the event of a strike. In other words, it is government policy to remove guards from trains. Like the current national dispute, the strike was therefore, in reality, against the government, not the company.

Looked at this way, the attempted removal of guards and the strikes it provoked are simply another consequence of the railways’ financial crisis. However, an understanding of the development of the railways over the past two decades reveals that attempts to save money by attacking rail workers is not a new phenomenon. This objective – even though it was never officially admitted – was at the heart of the privatization project from the very beginning.

‘Greedy unions’

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government believed nationalized industries were prone to ‘producer capture’ by unions, which put their own interests ahead of customers.1 Workers’ wages were defended by unions’ national pay-bargaining, underpinned by their ability to bring entire industries to a halt. The government’s solution to this was to privatize and fragment the nationalized industries. It was thought that if these were in the private sector, managers would be pressurized by shareholders to save money on staffing. If privatization created competition between companies, it would sharpen managers’ resolve to bear down on wages. If it could fragment monopolies, it would destroy collective bargaining by eroding the ability of unions to organize across industries. It was exactly this thinking which informed rail privatization between 1994 and 1997.2 Given that many of train operators’ costs are fixed – such as use of infrastructure and hiring rolling stock – it is largely through reducing spending on staff, which makes up only 29 per cent of the train operators’ total operating expenditure, that bidders for franchises hope to find a cutting edge over their rivals.3

In the early years of privatization, the train operators duly attempted to bring down labour costs by cutting staff. However, this merely led to staff shortages. Shortages became especially acute as demand for services grew in the late 1990s, which led to train companies laying on extra services, requiring more staff. In the first six years of privatization, the number of staff employed by train operating companies increased by 11 per cent.4 It seemed there was little slack to cut from the workforce which private companies had inherited from British Rail.

Intense competition within a market significantly reduces profitability for each firm and – if profit margins are very tight – there is little scope for offering wage rises to the workforce. If workers from one company strike for significantly better wages than the industry standard, they risk finding themselves out of a job, because that could make their employer unprofitable.5 It was through an intensively competitive market, transport policy expert and early rail privatization advocate Stephen Glaister argued, that privatized bus companies were able to reduce costs by as much as 40 per cent.

This contrasts starkly with the situation of the privatized railways, where competitive forces are nowhere near as strong, thanks to the government’s commitment to bailing out failing companies. According to Glaister, ‘those who negotiate on behalf of labour [the unions] know this. They sense that at the end of the day they have a direct line to the taxpayer and that they are in a strong bargaining position.’6

The average pay for a railway worker has barely changed in real terms since privatization in the 1990s. But the average hides important differences for different types of worker.

As well as franchising parcels of passenger services to different private companies, the Conservative government sold off Great Britain’s track, stations and rail infrastructure in one fell swoop, forming a new body called Railtrack in 1994. After a series of fatal rail crashes caused by track and signalling safety failures – at Ladbroke Grove in West London and at Hatfield and Potters Bar just north of the capital – the infrastructure was effectively re-nationalized under a new holding company, Network Rail.

In the early years of privatization, Railtrack was incentivized by its shareholders to reduce maintenance costs as much as possible. As Christopher Foster, one of the chief architects of rail privatization, explained, in the provision of infrastructure ‘the efficiency gains will largely… be in the use of people so as to achieve higher standards at lower costs’.2

Health and safety protocols went out of the window as workers found themselves often working in unfamiliar roles and places, on insecure contracts and in dangerous conditions

Much railway maintenance work is highly labour-intensive. The only way to cut costs and remain competitive was to cut jobs or pay workers less. Health and safety protocols went out of the window as workers found themselves often working in unfamiliar roles and places, on insecure contracts and in dangerous conditions. The terrible personal consequences for track workers were brilliantly portrayed in Ken Loach’s film The Navigators.

Taken together, the steadily declining pay for rail maintenance workers since the mid-2000s and the continued lack of job security are testament to privatization’s ‘success’ in undermining the livelihoods of infrastructure workers. That trend has been somewhat mitigated by the bringing in-house of Network Rail maintenance workers after Railtrack’s collapse, but zero-hours contracts and use of agency workers remain rife in rail infrastructural work and there is a long way to go to bring health and safety up to the standard expected by the safety inspectorate.7

Although railway maintenance involves highly specialized skills, much of the labour is performed by relatively unskilled workers, meaning that they can be easily replaced. Outsourcing, and the terrible pay and conditions it creates, is also ubiquitous among railway cleaners, caterers and security staff. At the other extreme are train drivers, whose training period of up to 12 months far exceeds that of other staff.8 To train a driver is very expensive. Given train operators’ focus on short-term profitability, they prefer to ‘poach’ drivers from other companies rather than train new ones. The result is a long-term under-supply of drivers, giving them and their union ASLEF significant bargaining leverage to drive up wages.

Changing the guard

The failure of the New Labour government to arrest the rise in railway costs following its post-Hatfield reforms led to a search for ‘value for money’. The resulting ‘McNulty report’ made a series of recommendations relating to the regulation of the railway system. But it brought about little in the way of policy change, except in one crucial respect: its insistence that savings of $305 million (£256 million) a year could be made through taking advantage of ‘significant opportunities to achieve improved value for money in the people area’.8

Central to the proposals was the widespread introduction of ‘driver-only operation’ – running trains without a guard. The McNulty report presaged a war between the government and railway workers. The strikes that it provoked were to last over four years – the most prolonged series of strikes in the history of Britain’s railways, causing massive disruption and inflicting huge damage on the economy, costing the government hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to train operators.9

The first skirmishes broke out in 2016 on Southern rail services, operated by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) which proposed reclassifying guards as ‘on-board supervisors’ with many of their traditional safety responsibilities removed. The drivers’ union ASLEF and the guards’ union, the RMT, recognized this as a cover for cuts: while trains are not permitted to run without a guard, they would be permitted to run without an on-board supervisor. GTR argued it had no intention of running trains without them, except in ‘exceptional circumstances’ – which it refused to define.

‘We have got to break them. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place’

The political stakes of the strike were made clear in February 2016 in a public meeting in Croydon, hosted by then MP and Tory government minister Gavin Barwell. He had invited along Peter Wilkinson, a senior civil servant whose comments at that meeting have become the stuff of railway folklore. Wilkinson advised the audience that ‘over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support’. He added: ‘We have got to break them. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.’10

Wilkinson later apologized for his remarks, but his call to arms was taken seriously by union leaderships. The RMT realized that taking the responsibility away from guards for the control of doors did not only have important safety implications; it would also weaken the union in the longer term. What leverage would the guards have if trains could run without them needing to be present to operate the doors? A strike would simply be another ‘exceptional circumstance’ – trains would continue to run without them, and the strike would be crushed.

Although the RMT lost the Southern dispute, agreements have since been reached to retain guards – albeit in some cases with altered roles – on Northern, Greater Anglia, Merseyrail, ScotRail, East Coast (now LNER), West Midlands Trains and South Western Railway. The rail companies’ threat of driver only-operation has not gone away – it seems to rear its ugly head every time a franchise is re-contracted and is likely to again in the government’s current cost-cutting drive – but these agreements are far from the widespread roll-out envisaged by McNulty, and a poor return for the extra public spending and economic damage that the government has been willing to tolerate.

The government, through its private operatives, went after guards because it needed to save money as a result of privatization’s vast wastage of public money, and because guards are an easier target than drivers.

Simply renationalizing railways, however, would not prevent a government from attacking services and staff, as can be seen in the history of British Rail before privatization or in publicly owned European systems today. In a loss-making industry, there will always be pressure to reduce public subsidy and thereby to minimize the social service aspect of railways. If the past few years have taught us anything it is that better outcomes are achievable when rail workers do not take cuts lying down.

This is an edited extract from Derailed by Tom Haines-Doran, published in october by Manchester University Press

  1. James Arrowsmith, ‘post-privatisation industrial relations in the UK rail and electricity industries’, in Industrial Relations Journal 34, no 2, 2003.
  2. Christopher Foster, The Economics of Rail Privatisation, Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, 1994.
  3. Author’s calculation from table 7226, Office of Rail and Road data portal, nin.tl/ORRData
  4. Calculated from figures in Robert Jupe and Gerald Crompton, ‘A deficient performance’, in Critical Perspectives on Accounting 17, no 8, 2006.
  5. Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity under Capitalist Competition, Brill, 2017.
  6. Stephen Glaister, British Rail Privatisation, Centre for the Study of Regulated Industries, 2004.
  7. ‘Too close for comfort’, The Construction Index, 23 May 2019, nin.tl/ConstructionIndex
  8. Roy McNulty, Realising the Potential of GB Rail, Department for Transport and Office of Rail Regulation, 2011, nin.tl/McNulty
  9. The exact amount of compensation paid by the government to train operating companies for strikes is not publicly available, but news reports and RMT press releases place the figure at $60 million (£50 million) for Govia Thameslink Railway (nin.tl/GTRcomp), at $102 million (£60 million) for South Western Railway (nin.tl/SWRcomp) and at $26 million (£22 million) for Northern (nin.tl/NorthernComp).
  10. Conrad Landin, ‘Keeping up with the commuters: the story of the failure of southern rail’, New Statesman, 14 December 2016, nin.tl/LandinSouthern