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Friday, December 27, 2013

British Weather and the RMT

Last week my wife traveled by national rail to visit her mother. There was nothing unusual in that. As she waited mid morning for the train to move away from the station the announcer advised all passengers “to be careful in this inclement weather as all surfaces may be slippery in the wet conditions.”  The cloud cover was patchy and sunny, it was a perfect winter day in sunny England and the rain held off until the evening.

Overseas travelers, particularly those who are used to trains leaving on time are often surprised by the penchant that we Britons have for stoically accepting the pathetic excuses rolled out by train operators, almost daily, for the incessant delays and poor quality service, which over the decades has seen year on year price increases that are usually well above the rate of inflation.  We have become oblivious to the contemptuous disregard that both train companies and their staff have for the traveling public.

It defies logic that private travel operators who enjoy monopoly conditions as well as the protection of the government (through an iniquitous system of state subsidies) can be so completely contemptuous towards the public that finances its existence.  And yet it is clear that the national rail system (and that includes the London Underground network) prioritize themselves in order of the following importance:  first comes the generous Staff and Executive Pay (and benefits) and then Company Profits. At no time does the British public figure in benefit calculations.

If we take the police as an example of public virtue as opposed to transportation greed, the police are classified as an essential public service. They do not strike (or cannot strike) and on dates of national significance (such as football tournaments and national holidays) they are drafted in from surrounding districts in order to safeguard the peace.

Contrast this with the National Rail system and on days of sporting interest or holidays the rail companies will find every conceivable excuse to fleece the traveling public – those that actually work will receive double pay, triple pay, time off in lieu, bonuses – the list goes on. It is extraordinary.  Of course they deserve a living wage – a better than living wage, but for years they have extorted with malice and inexhaustible amounts of greed enormous sums from the pockets of the public.

Bob Crow, since early in 2002 general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) once justified this greed by reference to Bankers pay.  Over the Christmas period London Underground appeared to be scheduling a regular service, but the Overground (a separate company) reported that it would not be operating any services at all due to the need to ‘carry out essential maintenance work.’ And National Rail companies reported (two weeks prior to Xmas) that due to severe weather conditions they would be cancelling services on entire routes during the Xmas holiday period.

What must be appreciated is that here in Britain our weather is overwhelmingly middling.  We do not suffer from extremes of hot or cold; strong winds are rare and flooding, is an annual occurrence caused by successive governments’ commitment to locating housing projects on flood plains.  So we rely on the BBC weather center for our very survival (or so it seems).  And they are barely competent.  At the start of this current winter season the Weather Service warned us all to expect three months of arctic conditions. All of November 2013 and most of December 2013 the country was unseasonably warm, occasionally chilly but rarely freezing.

Why mention the weather? Because trains are frequently delayed due to a) the wrong kind of snow falling on the tracks, b) leaves on the track and my personal favorite is c) the wrong kind of rain on the track.

And for the last week the weather center has been warning us to expect gales, high winds and torrential rains. The obvious point of all this is that in the build up to Christmas - New Year, National Rail employees enjoy a relaxing, extended holiday at our expense and do not provide the service they are overpaid to provide.

We were warned to expect extensive delays to our travel plans and offered advice on when to travel, when to delay our travel plans and when to bring them forward to accommodate the severe weather conditions.

The national rail companies warned us in the run-up to Christmas of massive service cancellations.  We cannot successfully predict our national weather 24 hours in advance but the rail companies were looking forward to their extended holiday break with their excuses aired nationally.

On the 23rd of December, having already postponed our travel plans on National Rail advice we were uncertain if we would be able to travel. Almost all trains had already been cancelled. Dire weather warnings juxtaposed almost clear blue skies.  We caught our usual train.  It became overcast, it was a bit chilly, and it even rained, lightly at one point in our journey.

The reality is that a conspiracy seems to exist between the government, private train operators and the RMT.  They fleece the traveling public and they display open contempt for the people they are meant to serve.  With tourism bringing around 30 million overseas visitors to Britain each year and London recognized as a global financial center nothing must be done to damage our reputation. In fact it was recently announced that Britain would spend 47 billion pounds on a fast rail system connecting the English North to London i.e. 78 Billion US dollars or 56 Billion Euros.

How will ‘the workers’ benefit from this limited service? No one will ask the obvious questions of who will and how will peace be guaranteed.  But it is the people into whose pocket the government will reach in order to pay for this massively expensive project.

When I first arrived in London all weekend travel by public transport was cheaper because all regular maintenance work took place on weekends (and as a consequence the service was inferior).  This arrangement worked.  The public received a tangible benefit for being inconvenienced. Today’s British travel is very expensive, inefficient, unreliable and untrustworthy.  It benefits shareholders and rail company employees but it benefits the traveling public only tangentially.

If we the public, are powerless to enforce good governance and fair pricing in the operation of the rail companies and the management of their employees, and if the state refuses to intervene on our behalf then we must consider that they do not serve the public as is their mandate.  The definition of a criminal conspiracy is:  “An agreement between two or more persons (or entities) to commit a crime”.  The rail companies, the RMT and the government fit that description.

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