Why Climate campaigners should support the rail unions 

Jun 23, 2022

Paul Atkin/Tahir Latif

What is the link between climate action and stopping the decline of public transport?

From the RMT: “We want a transport system that operates for the interests of the people, for the needs of society, and our environment – not for private profit”.

This government is failing on the climate crisis.  It has no integrated transport plan, is not realising the need to address aviation and motoring and to prioritise public transport.  It favours private companies which make vast profits rather than making transport affordable and our air breathable.

Why are our railways being subjected to a ‘managed decline’ just when we need them the most?

From the TUC “Network Rail plans to cut annual expenditure by £100 million, mainly through the loss of 2,500 rail maintenance jobs. RMT analysis of Network Rail data finds that this will lead to 670,000 fewer hours of maintenance work annually. Network Rail responsibilities include track maintenance – essential to avoiding fatal accidents like Hatfield, which was the result of the metal tracks fatiguing”. 

The government is committed to following free market ideology, the ‘logic’ of which produces a managed decline of much-needed rail services, imposing a 10% annual cut to the running costs of the railways (and even more on the buses in London, with 20% of services threatened).

Meanwhile £27Bn is planned to be spent on roads.  This can only increase car use, with negative effects on air pollution, carbon emissions, congestion, accidents, inhibition of active travel and hitting commuters hard in the pocket while boosting the profits of the fossil fuel companies.

The advice of the International Energy Agency  is to push for a sharp shift out of cars and planes into public transport by significantly reducing fares – in the way they have done in Berlin, where a month’s travel card will cost just 9 Euros.

Yet train and bus services are being cut, while the easy win of replacing domestic flying with rail is stalled by the Chancellor cutting duties on domestic flights, already absurdly cheaper than equivalent rail journeys.

How can a reduced rail service possibly be good for the economy? 

From the TUC : Rail is a major driver of the UK economy. In 2019 the UK rail sector contributed £14.1bn in tax revenue. It provides employment for many thousands of workers and enables millions.

The government has a short-sighted trouble shooting approach to transport policy, as it does in every area of the economy.  This means that there is no strategy for the rail network, to improve services or to meet climate commitments.

The presumption is that investment will, and has to, come from the private sector.  That requires profitability; and that requires lower wages, corners cut on safety, no job security or protection built in for a work life balance.

They don’t recognise the critical importance of planned state investment, as a way to generate multiplier effects and a significant return in revenue, as well as improvements in service.  The government version of rail modernisation is at the expense of the workers. They are playing out what an unjust transition looks like. This is the opposite of what we stand for.

From the TUC: “Unions are concerned that the Department for Transport’s demand for cuts signifies intention to reduce public funding for rail services. With ticket revenue still not fully recovered from the pandemic, this could mean that many rail services are permanently stopped across all parts of the UK.”

What are the implications of current policy for workers?  Why is it so critical that we support this action?

From the TUC: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “If this dispute cannot be resolved, the government will look at a full range of options to stop the unions hurting the general public, including repealing the ban on transferable staff filling in for striking workers.”

This is what P&O did with impunity and no real challenge from the government.  Now the government is making  moves to legalise strike breaking and reducing the legal framework for workers – any workers – to take action to defend themselves from attacks.  This is a green light for employers to transfer wealth upwards by increasing exploitation – more work for less pay.

The context of this is a climate crisis in which the excess consumption of the top 10% will push us beyond 1.5C by 2030, while the rest of us either have a negligible or declining carbon footprint.

Government policy favours the unsustainable lifestyles of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.  They aim to hold wages below inflation – effectively cutting workers pay – and to cut jobs at a time when we need a significant investment not just in infrastructure but in the people that keep the railways running.

Setting a precedent of this on rail could mean it is then applied to other sectors of the work force.  But supporting the rail strikes can also set a precedent, that workers can counter and overcome this dominant narrative if they are inspired to find the courage to take similar actions society-wide.