Ministers think trains are just too much bother. That’s why they are so relaxed about the strikes | Simon Jenkins

Of all Britain’s looming strikes, ministers seem least worried by the trains. When last week the Treasury and the transport secretary, Mark Harper, reportedly stopped the rail companies from upping their pay offer to the unions, they would have known the strike was on. They would have known that demanding new work practices alongside a fall in real-terms pay was never going to work.

The pandemic devastated the railways, despite the government strangely paying to keep them running throughout. Taxpayers spent £16bn and goodness knows how much carbon transporting air round Britain. Latest figures suggest that rail use has stabilised at two-thirds to three-quarters what it was before the pandemic, a huge fall. The fact is that train travel has a high profile but supplies barely 6% of passenger journeys and 8% even of long-distance ones. The vast majority of Britons – 84% – go by road. Talk of a Christmas “lockdown” through rail strikes would apply only to a small minority. For most people, private cars and coaches are the realistic, and cheaper, norm.

The impressive expansion in rail in the boom years of 1990-2010 has already ceased. The idea that privatisation would eliminate subsidy was woefully inaccurate. Partly thanks to the Treasury’s chaotic model of “vertical segregation”, subsidy more than tripled. Since 2010, operators as well as infrastructure began reverting to public ownership. Talk of a return to British Rail – so-called Great British Railways – has been on and off for the past year under a “pop-up” army of transport secretaries. One result was last month’s capitulation of Harper and his Downing Street bosses to the railway’s most powerful interest group, supporters of David Cameron’s now utterly pointless HS2 line to Birmingham.

Elizabeth Line station at Bond Street in London.
‘With London’s lavish Elizabeth line just opened and HS2 now primarily about capacity into London, British rail investment is one giant laugh in the face of levelling up.’ Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock

This line now has a taxpayer outflow to the rail industry of about £5bn a year, a sum roughly comparable to money paid out to the entire rest of the railway for two decades. It seems out of control, amid claims that 46 of its executives take home pay of more than £150,000, including the country’s highest-paid civil servant, its CEO, on £650,000. Rumours are vindicated that the Treasury warned the railways to expect no more favours. That would pay for HS2’s endemic cost overruns.

Services in the north-west are currently in turmoil and Boris Johnson’s talk of a “northern powerhouse rail” has all but evaporated. With London’s lavish Elizabeth line just opened and HS2 now primarily about capacity into London, British rail investment is one giant laugh in the face of levelling up.

Except for urban commuters, railways are primarily about leisure and off-peak travel, with the latter’s bookings now at 90% of pre-Covid. Minor evidence is that Britain’s 200 “heritage” lines are in rude good health. But geography means that the British economy wants roads and ever more of them. They link ports and warehouses and meet online demand. Their successors will be drones and robots, not inflexible rails.

Trains are useful but no longer, it appears, essential. Those of us who love them may weep, but the raw fact is that they are not in the same league as hospitals, ambulances or schools. The transport department has just advertised for a “head of uncertainty”. It sounds like a good job.

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