Keeping Britain's railway on track

Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, argues investment in track maintenance and rail infrastructure is fundamental to the economic success of the nation.

In our industry, attention is often focused on passenger services rather than on freight. The TOCs get the glory while the freight sector rarely has its day in the sun – just as on the rugby field, it’s the backs who hit the headlines while the forwards do the heavy lifting. Or, to mix my metaphors, the government, the DfT, Parliament and the media tend to treat the train operating companies as Cinderella, who gets to go to the ball and marry the prince, while the freight operating companies are regarded as the ugly sisters left to fume quietly at home.

Which is a bit harsh. Because without the work that freight drivers and freight companies do every day and every night, the TOCs would not be able to run any services. Track maintenance in Britain is down to freight. I should add here, for full disclosure, that I was a freight driver myself before I became a full-time union officer.

The trouble is that the freight sector is in decline. Management at DB Cargo, in its previous incarnation as DB Schenker, knew that coal traffic was about to collapse – after the government increased the tax on coal to reduce consumption at Britain’s power stations – but failed to find alternative contracts.

With the sector in decline – mainly, frankly, due to bad management, but also partly because the government allows road freight an unfair competitive advantage over rail – and, consequently, with so many freight drivers leaving the industry, I fear that there will soon be too few drivers available to carry out the track maintenance work that keeps the wheels turning on Britain’s railway network.

The vital work that freight drivers do is necessary for all the train and freight companies to run their services, for passengers and for business. Without that work, the trains won’t run.

Investing in infrastructure – especially in our railway – is essential for the economic success of the nation because the ability to move people and goods around the country is the platform on which we will deliver employment, growth and national prosperity. It is especially important in this country as we are, I believe, victims of our early success.

Because the Industrial Revolution began here in Britain, much of our celebrated infrastructure – many of the bridges, tunnels, viaducts and long stretches of track – was built by the great Victorian engineers at the height of the railway boom in the 19th century. It was cutting-edge then, but it’s a little long in the tooth now.

ASLEF has always argued for investment in the railway – partly because we know it will be good for Britain, and partly because it should be good for us. More investment will mean more trains, and more trains will mean more train drivers.

So you could say we have a vested interest. But every interest is vested. And on this – on track maintenance and investing in infrastructure – I believe every other stakeholder in this industry is singing from our hymn sheet.

The railway needs to be properly planned and sensibly managed. That’s the only way to create a modern, integrated rail network, fit for the 21st century, for passengers, for business, and for Britain.

Top Image: wabeno




Neil Palmer   06/02/2018 at 15:27

It's certainly refreshing to see that at least one rail union leader named Mick is capable of putting forth a reasoned rational position on something.

Ned76   06/02/2018 at 21:03

A rational position. It's not very rational as far as a trade union goes to sell another trade unions members down the river.

Neil Palmer   06/02/2018 at 21:46

Ned, If you're referring to the RMT then a few points for consideration: 1) Whelan's job is to look after ASLEF members, not RMT members. 2) RMT members sole themselves down the river by electing Mick Cash, someone totally incapable of sensible negotiation and compromise, and many RMT members (not all) continue to follow him off the cliff like lemmings. Joining a union doesn't mean having giving up your right to think. Cash knows this, which is why he refuses to hold another vote on the DCO issue.

Lutz   07/02/2018 at 02:56

A jaundiced view. Unfortunately rail can not compete with road freight in the fastest growing sector - the distribution and final mile. Container traffic is still growing on the rail network, but the costs, partly due to failure to deliver a reliable service, and the excessive staff remuneration, means that rail is just not competitive enough to capture what growth is there. The government needs to review investment so that more money is put back into roads rather than rail to prevent transport grinding to a halt for the 92% of trips, approax 5x volume of freight/km, that is not made by rail

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