Those of us who depend on trains to travel around Britain are not having the best of decades.
The government’s decision to tear up plans for the most critical parts of HS2 will be seen for many years to come as an act of criminal damage to the nation’s infrastructure – and the latest blow to confidence in a Victorian network required to try to deliver a 21st-century experience.
For significant parts of 2020 and 2021, rail was off-limits except for essential workers. Frontline staff kept the network running. Billions of pounds were spent running largely empty trains.
Once the pandemic was over, those workers wanted a no-strings pay settlement that took account of their contribution during Covid. Ministers insisted that the finances of the rail industry had emerged in such poor shape (one estimate is that revenue is down £40 per second) that even a modest pay rise was contingent on radical reforms to working arrangements.
The deepest, longest and most bitter industrial dispute in living history has thwarted tens of millions of journeys since strikes began 16 months ago. Both the main rail union, the RMT, and the train drivers’ union, Aslef, remain far apart from the train operators – whose hands are tied by the government.
Yet, as winter infiltrates our lives once more, there are a couple of reasons to be cheerful.
The first is that we will go at least four weeks without a national rail strike – which I hope indicates that negotiations, or at least talks about talks, are underway.
The most recent stoppage was the train drivers’ walkout on Wednesday 4 October, timed to coincide with the end of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. With, as I write, no further action notified by Aslef or the RMT, the first possible date for another strike is Thursday 2 November.
Get those trips in now, fellow travellers – and make the most of the dwindling daylight to enjoy the best of the UK’s rail journeys.
To help, I have calculated the train operators with the most scenic networks.
CrossCountry wins because it has the very best of the southwest and the northeast. It shares with GWR the amazing stretch of the South Devon coastline from Teignmouth to Dawlish (and, I contend, the Exe estuary into Exeter). But it can also…