"I don't think we have a government that fully believes in railways"
Aslef's General Secretary on investment, Northern rail, London transport and workers' rights
Transport is once again in the news – and, once again, not for the right reasons.
In the last two months Rishi Sunak has cut air passenger duty for domestic flights in the run-up to the Cop26 climate summit; the Conservative government has broken its promises over rail investment, causing outrage amongst political leaders across the North of England; and the running conflict over government mishandling of the capital’s transport finances has risen back to the top of the agenda of London politics.
So with all this in the news, I spoke to the General Secretary of Aslef, the train drivers’ union. Mick Whelan’s members are essential to the running of our railways and therefore our economy. Mick Whelan is not only a key figure on our railways – he is also the chair of TULO, the joint body of Labour’s affiliated trade unions.
If there was one word that shone through in our discussion it was investment – the need for it, and the absence of anywhere near enough of it.
First I asked Mick about his comment following the Conservatives’ rail announcements last month that the government had announced Northern Powerhouse Rail sixty times. I asked him about the difficulty – outside the south east - of getting the necessary investment in rail agreed at present.
“True, but also it has been a long term problem,” he says. “You and I have both been around long enough to remember George Osborne talking about HS3 for the North and originally using the term 'Northern powerhouse'. And we ridiculed him at the time both politically and industrially saying you know, increasing a few bits of the line by a few twenty miles an hour does not equate to a high speed network, doesn't qualify as heartbeat network and doesn't meet the needs of a high speed network. And then they started saying - particularly when they were going for the red wall seats - about investment.”
The returns on rail investment are clear: “Now before covid we were seeing figures like, for every pound invested in public transport, we got five pounds back to the economy, even in the post-covid world, or this interim-covid world which we should probably call it, you're still seeing for every pound invested in public transport, £2.50 coming back to the economy.”
So the government’s broken promises over investment for the North are an obstacle to the economy.
Mick Whelan’s argument is not limited to growth – investment in the railways is part of the bigger picture that runs from where you build houses, to how you move freight around, to delivering our objectives over climate change.
He is scathing about the government’s failure to lead and its extraordinary decision to cut air passenger duty on domestic flights. He says that he and others went up to Cop26, “expecting that the government had some sort of little thing up their sleeves that they were going to announce to all the world leaders - 'We're going to lead the way, this is what we're going to do in the future, this is what we're going to do in the UK' - and it didn't come.” Worse than that: “Not only did it not come but where the rest of the world - particularly in France and Europe - are looking at putting taxes on flights, are not running flights where we can get the train to a place in four hours, we are actually reducing the aircraft tax and creating a greater problem for people using long distance rail.”
Inevitably that takes us back to the government’s broken promises. “But let's come to the sixty announcements, so we have sixty announcements of HS2, the investment that was going to come and what was going to go with it. And now they're not going to do it.” He is concerned that the government will use the decisions it has taken, which fall short of what is needed, to say that the job is done: “it'll be an excuse not to do it in future: 'We already spent this, we already improved this, already done it. So we're not going to do it'.”
Although of course HS2 is a high speed link, for Mick Whelan, the real failure of the government is not just about travelling faster: “of course the original vision of HS2, way back in the day when it was a Labour policy, was that it wasn't about short journey times - everybody's going back to the short journey time thing - it was about capacity.” It’s the loss of new capacity that will hurt, if, as he says, “you truly want to go green” – building better rail links that can get freight to hubs where it can be distributed by shorter lorry journeys, preferably in electric vehicles. “So there's real way of integrating transport, particularly on the freight side, to make [it] more equitable, to make it greener, to make it better, and also create jobs. It's not about rail being in competition with roads, it's about how do you complement each other with some sort of long-term integrated plan. Of course to do that then you have to find the capacity on the railway,” he says, reinforcing his case for much higher levels of investment.
Hearing Mick Whelan talk about the government’s failures over rail policy, you cannot avoid the sense of the huge opportunity that was missed last month: “if you build a high speed railway,” he argues, “you reinvigorate the regional networks that feed into it and out of it. It reinvigorates the metro railways, where people go in and out, it reinvigorates all the railways, and gets people actually using public railways rather than cars.” Aslef is a rail union but Mick Whelan sees the railways as part of the map that links public transport together. He points out his union has campaigned “very heavily” against deregulation of buses, because bus services, the railways, and transport hubs are all part of the public transport picture. He says that deregulating the buses has taken millions of journeys out of the system. It’s a series of connected problems, that stretches from buses to rail: “Then, what is the incentive to build your new railway stations? What is the incentive to put the railway stations near where you're going to build the millions of houses you need for the future, where you're going to rebuild those local economies, if you can't actually get from those houses to the railway station or back home again?”
A long view is needed. On this point Mick Whelan taps into a core left argument about the necessity of raising investment to continue to make infrastructure a success. “What we actually have needed for an awful long time is a thirty-year view - it really doesn't matter who's in power at that point in time - a view that will allow us to see what we need to do for the future generations. If we look at the railway itself, the Channel Tunnel was first mooted in Napoleonic times, Crossrail was first suggested in 1949 - I'm not telling you anything you don't know - and every time we've built anything, whether it be a major motorway, or a bit of railway, it's always been overcapacity the day that we've opened it and it's always too late. If we can't at this moment in time, when the whole world is talking about the greener future, find a way to incorporate railways and public transport in an integrated way for what we need to do, then we're not going to do it.”
He’s right. I very well recall the discussions in London government over Crossrail – about how long that argument had been going on and why it was necessary finally to resolve it.
In fact, Mick Whelan’s argument about those big schemes prompted me to ask him about Boris Johnson’s approach. “Boris Johnson has got a track record of talking about infrastructure, but it's usually quite hare-brained schemes, like garden bridges over the Thames,” was my point. “But the truth is, if you don't constantly invest, then you end up with a kind of managed decline of the services, don't you, because they end up not being up to scratch?”
“Well, that's currently where we're going, aren't we?” is his worrying response. “I mean, we're looking at people talking about the future, but the first thing they did was cut the Network Rail budget by a billion, we're waiting to see what money is going to come out for future projects. But even the £96 billion, if you look at it, I believe some £42 billion of that was money already accounted for HS1. Other projects that have been promised before have not happened yet, they've announced many times in the past. And also some hare-brained stuff within the middle of it.” There’s a basic issue of insufficient resources: “I'm telling you now you can't build a metro service, whether it be light rail or otherwise with £100 million. You just have to look at the cost of building the trams in Edinburgh.”
If investment and the failure to make the right decisions are an issue then so too is privatisation. The privatised model under John Major, he says, “was meant to drive investment. Competition was meant to drive investment, competition was meant to drive innovation, competition was going to drive fares down: what we've actually seen is the opposite. Very few railway companies invest anything at all other than in the franchise process itself which is very expensive in the bidding process, and then they make themselves first creditors when they've won it so they get the money back.” He makes the point that in a post-Brexit world, the government were “terrified” there would be no competition for the franchises, “because eighty-five percent of the TOCs [train operating companies] were either partially or wholly run by foreign state entities.” He says questions were being asked in the Dutch parliament about whether they should be investing in buses or rail in the UK, “and that's happening elsewhere in France and other locations”. Finding a new mode of competition was a struggle. “So we, after twenty-three years, actually have won the argument of privatisation. Grant Shapps used exactly the same words that we did when he announced the model wasn't fit for purpose. They didn't admit they got it wrong. They didn't admit the waste of money.”
Unfortunately we still don’t have a rational model: “So we now have a bastardised version of Andy McDonald's view of GB Railways, which would have been a national state railway with a freight arm of some sort, that would have been run for the greater good where the investment would have been directed in any services, would come back into the Treasury either for public transport or for other needs.” Instead we have got Network Rail “becoming the new S[trategic] R[ail] A[uthority]”, with the danger that the people overseeing the system will spend “most of their time trying to justify the model that they're operating in, rather than giving a vision to the railway.” The Treasury hold the purse strings. “And we all know how difficult it is going to be in the post-covid world to get any money out of the Treasury,” is his assessment. “I don't believe housing, railways or public transport are going to be top of the queue.”
I mention to Mick Whelan that it is frustrating, given the collapse of the franchising model, that there is not more of a debate about moving towards full public ownership of the railways. One of the issues that frustrates him is the so-called subsidy of rail: “the idea that they put fourteen billion in and it's a subsidy - well, if you put £14 billion into housing it’s not a subsidy, if you put £14 billion into the health service, it's not a subsidy, if that's what it’s taking to run the railway under public control in the last eighteen months, that's the cost of running the railway.”
In fact, the real question is the purpose of the private companies on the railways at all. “Boris said we will keep the experience and good practice of the privateers - when we publicly asked what that good practice and experience is, we don't know. No one can give us a definitive answer.” The private operators have a loyalty to themselves more than the transport system, highlighted by the collapse of the franchises and the pandemic: “their first duty wasn't to the travelling public, [their] first duty wasn't to key workers in the pandemic, their first duty is to the shareholders, surely.”
Whenever the railways come up as an issue there is a body of opinion – including in the Labour party - that says the question of the railways is a side issue, pointing to the higher numbers of people who use cars in comparison to rail users. I suggest to Mick Whelan that what we've seen with northern powerhouse rail is that it's actually becoming a real long-term threat to economic prosperity not to deal with rail as a priority.
In response, he says there is a reality about HS2 that gets lost. “It was about electrification of our network. It was about the decarbonisation and it was about being greener. Now we find ourselves in the current situation where we've got freight operators mothballing all their electric engines because of the high cost of electricity and running dirty green diesel engines that don't have the power and capacity to deliver the real-time delivery that they're expected to do, but they're doing it because of cost.” A policy of “big sexy new trains in the southeast” and then cascading “our old crap that's 20-30 years old to you [the North], under the guise it's newer trains to replace the old crap that you've already got” is not investment. “That is actually quite patronising in the worst sort of way and creating that big south east-northern divide that we often talk about.”
I mention that the difficulty of moving across the North by rail, compared to commuting from the North to London, is a very serious problem. He agrees and makes a wider point. “But it is also about generating for the local communities: why would business invest in those areas where there are no links? If you can't get to work or you can't get people to do business with you, because there are no links, it's self-defeating. And I want a railway system where it is all interconnected.”
Mick Whelan’s view of the government is damning and draws together all the strands of his arguments about rail.
“You know, I don't actually think we have a government that fully believes in railways, that's fully invested in railways, and sees railways as the way forward. But again, with the geographical size of this island, I can't see another way in which you can deliver Kyoto, Paris, or even getting to 1.5 and Cop26.”
Before we finish, I ask Mick Whelan about London. We had talked a lot about rail outside the south east but London currently has its own issues. Aslef has balloted its London Underground members over working conditions and pensions because of the funding crisis at Transport for London, and got a 99 per cent ‘yes’ vote for strike action. I ask him how the union had delivered such a big vote. It’s not rocket science. “Well, you ask people - it's your future, it's your conditions, it's your pensions. But I think it's cumulative over how they've been treated.” He connects the mood with the contrast of how people came out onto their doorsteps to support the NHS but then the workforce have not seen their pay resolved.
On the railways too there is frustration that “what we've seen is two years with people with no pay rises, but also have had no public thanks at all from the government,” adding: “our people have been going to work every day throughout the covid crisis to ensure…that other key workers could get to work. And also those people that are putting food on the shelves, getting the food to the shelves, those medicines and vaccines when we got them, could be moved around the country. And they do feel a bit disgruntled that they've been ignored during a period of time when they've done their duty as we see it for their communities and the places where they live in.”
I ask him if he has a message to the government on the TfL funding crisis, which is currently hurtling towards a crunch deadline this month.
“But the trouble is there isn't a TfL funding crisis - what there is, is my members and other workers and sister trade unions, their livelihoods being used as a political football because Boris couldn't win the London mayoral election and he wants to hurt Sadiq in every way that he can.”
In response to my question Mick Whelan taps into a question that goes waybbeyond his members, even as it is currently very seriously posed in their case: who ends up paying. Boris Johnson, he says, “wants us to pay for the covid crisis - I don't think it is right that the workers pay for the covid crisis. London is one of the richest cities in the world, whether we go for land value tax, whether we go for other things, there are other mechanisms that we can use, to generate money for capital expenditure or for the growth. There isn't a business in London that doesn't require either the people that use that business or the people that come to work in that business to have a good bus and a good tube system. If you ask the CBI I don't think they think that what the government's doing with TfL was the right way forward.”
Finally, moving off transport, we talk about his role as chair of TULO, the formal grouping of Labour’s affiliated unions. The party recently published a green paper on employment rights. How does want to see that green paper taken forward, into next year and into the run up to a general election?
“Well, as we've done, the work, it should just slip-slide straight into the manifesto, should be no debates at Clause Five [the meeting that determines Labour’s manifesto]. Keir Starmer himself spoke when we launched it at the Labour Party Conference, virtually every general secretary was on that platform as well. It is a piece of work that's a tribute to Andy McDonald and all the people in his office, and echoes what we've been saying in the last two manifestos but builds upon it. You know, it talks about getting rid of fire-and-rehire, talks about getting rid of zero-hours contracts. It talks about making work, work.”
He is concerned about the culture where people want to castigate others “as some sort of welfare scroungers”, adding:
“if we are the party of the working people, which we claim to be, then we've got to reverse that, but at the same time you also need the associated things that go with it - the right to strike, the right to protest, the right to fight for your rights, the right to have a voice.”
In policy-making terms we often hear that trade unions represent just the ‘producer interest’. From Northern rail connections and investment, to net zero or a functioning transport system for London, the arguments made by trade unionists like Mick Whelan show that trade unions go way beyond that. The labour movement consistently connects its immediate industrial questions to wider issues, in a way that is far superior to the market-driven arguments of the conservative right.
Thanks to Mick Whelan for sparing the time.