simon calder, also known as the one who pays the price, has written about travel for The Independent since 1994. After 28 long years in the wilderness, he was gratefully awarded the Travel Award at the British Journalism Awards this week; better late than never. In his weekly opinion column, Simon explores an important travel question – and what it means for you.
Imagine a business that loses one-fifth of its customers in three years. Revenue shrank further, to just 71% of 2019 levels.This means a reduction of £10 million every day than 2019.
Things got worse. Three different bosses in seven weeks. The pricing policy is so irrational and full of anomalies that more and more customers are buying twice or more to get a single product, often saving 40% in the process. and confusing staff work schedules.
In one sector of the business, the terms of employment depend on which side of a series of hills your job happens to be on. This is a 7-day-a-week operation, with Eastern staff working on shifts on any given day. And those folks on the west side can only work Sundays if they want to earn some overtime pay.
It was an organization that clearly needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, with lower costs, greater flexibility, reasonable pricing, and fresh ideas. Instead, the service is on the decline due to toxic labor relations and an apparent death wish: the company is advising potential customers to avoid it for much of the next three weeks.
As you know, I am describing the railways in England at the end of a year of chaos.
These passenger and revenue figures, released this week for July-September 2022, shed light on the scale of the economic downturn since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Mark Harper takes over as transport secretary from Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who succeeds Grant Shapps, who backed Rishi Sunak Sunak’s leadership campaign was fired by Liz Truss. All of this comes amid a long and painful rail strike that has been going on for six months and has disrupted travel plans across the UK.
While you can point to a fragmented industry involving dozens of individual businesses, many of them private, the reality is that the UK Transport Secretary calls the shots.
Some train operators are in the private sector and effectively charge for operating services as stipulated by the Department of Transport (DfT). Others are publicly run, such as Northern Trains – whose employment agreements are based on workers’ location relative to the Pennines.
There are good arguments for fully state-owned railways, while most current outsourcing arrangements are to the contrary. But the idea that billions of pounds are exiting the industry and going to “foreign shareholders” and can simply be redirected to provide inflation-matching wage increases is absurd. As things stand, the railroads are bleeding cash and taxpayers are footing the bill.
“Splitting fares”, where you legally take advantage of anomalies in the fare structure to reduce the cost of rail travel, has gone mainstream. Revenue is further reduced as ticketing apps give you ways to save. Surely no one is going to buy a full price ticket from Bristol to London, and ‘Didcot Dodge’ (buying a ticket to Oxfordshire Junction and another from there) cuts the cost by 40%.
Everyone in the business is aware of the unsavory truth that needs to change. From most parties involved, however, there is no sign of meaningful progress in improving service, cutting costs and boosting business. Instead, the government and unions are engaged in a long ideological squabble while travelers and taxpayers are just bystanders.
this RMT Unions have embarked on a 12-day strike at the end of the year and into 2023, arguing the government has a bottomless pit of cash and will end up handing over more. Ministers, by contrast, believe they can crack down on strikers and set an example for other public sector workers. Plague on both of your platforms, say passengers as we book flights, rent cars, or stay at home as per train company orders. A day’s delay in the dispute, with the underlying issues of the rail still unresolved, will dampen interest in train travel and accelerate the downward spiral of opt-in support from both sides.