Graeme Archer is a medical statistician, a former winner of the Orwell Prize for blogging, and recently a speechwriter for a Cabinet Minister.
Normally I wouldn’t trouble you with details of my commute. It’s no big deal, right? And everyone does it.
The photo on the right of this paragraph, taken last Thursday somewhere between Finsbury Park and Barnet, I’ve called The truth stares out at them, and they avert their eyes. It’s a phrase I recall (from William Trevor’s appropriately wretched novel Felicia’s Journey) on most trips to and from work.
Those weary faces; that peculiarly British mixture of desolation and resignation. We wage-slaves spend our last drops of energy in avoiding one another’s gaze, lest we see our own misery reflected back at us.
Those people, Prime Minister, and the millions like us, squeezed onto trains across the South-East network, are just about managing to cope. If you look at the image long enough, you will hear our silent prayer: This is no way to live, we whisper. This is no way to live, and one day I’ll be free.
Well: half a million of us got a few days of freedom this week, courtesy of the RMT and Aslef trades unions, who are more than just about managing to cripple the South-East with (yet more) strikes posited on totally spurious safety claims. Southern Trains want to introduce driver-only services. The trades unions claim this will put passengers at risk, and have ramped up their infuriating strikes to a level of malevolence not seen since Scargill.
Do you think I’m biased against the unions? Surely nothing matters more than safety? Look at the photo again. I took it on a train operated by the same company which runs Southern. Drivers from the same trades unions work those services, which haven’t had conductors for years.
I would agree with the RMT that those passengers are at risk, but it has nothing to do with the absence of a conductor.
Rather, the risk is manifold. Partly, passengers face being sucked to financial death by the alien squid which own, but don’t care about, the train operating companies. When the railway jamboree dries up they’ll slither on to some other source of franchisable, government-guaranteed income, and destroy that too.
More risk comes from the unions themselves, of course. Travelling in the South-East is to be at the mercy of an ill-tempered toddler. You might have been looking forward to your holiday all year, but it departs from Gatwick Airport, and No! screams the toddler, stamping its hob-nailed foot: Not today! My members are on stwike!
The biggest risk of all comes from the Government. It claimed to be on the side of the working and lower-middle classes, to share our bourgeois values, chief amongst which is the ability to suck up discomfort in order to earn our average wages that fund the leviathan which the state assures us is the mark of a civilised society.
But in the week that militant unions and incompetent companies brought the South-East to a halt (again), the government seemed more concerned with a bitch-slapping competition between Number 10 and a former education secretary, about clothing, and handbags. I’m not making that up.
Here was the Prime Minister, asked about the issues of the day (her trousers): “I stood on the steps of Downing Street and said what I did about the importance of a country that works for everyone because that’s what I have heard from people as I’ve gone around the country […] I believe it is important for politicians to get out and about.”
How very reassuring. I hope that getting “out and about” doesn’t involve “going around the country” by train. They’re really not working for anyone, Prime Minister, let alone everyone, with the exception of the squid and the union bosses.
Oh, for sure – every so often, some minister will come on Today to splutter on about how “intolerable” it all is, and how they are planning on something really magnificent to fix things, like a new phone-line for ticket refunds, or a change in the logo of the company which announces, multiple times a week, that your journey home has been cancelled.
But that which is tolerated cannot, by definition, be intolerable. And this situation is tolerated, has been tolerated, for as long as I can remember. Therefore it is not “intolerable”, not to the government, anyway.
I said “everyone” commutes, but that’s not true, of course. People who are very rich or very poor: such extremes of the income distribution don’t hold season tickets, though for entirely different reasons; probably why transport was so neglected during the Blair-Brown Terror: the former’s passion was (and is) for oligarchs, the latter claimed to be busy ending poverty forever. In the boringly quiescent working and lower-middle classes, neither showed much interest.
But a government that claims to have the interests of those people at heart can’t ignore transport. It was good to read on Wednesday that Chris Grayling is “not ruling anything in or out.” He should rule in some fundamental, legislative action.
That means killing the squid, and starting again with the franchise system, putting passenger interests at the centre of the process. Season ticket holders should have a vote in the award of the franchise: their views should count for more than those of a committee of civil servants.
And it most certainly means criminalising the activities of the RMT. Stop mucking around and treat it for what it is: an enemy of the people who just about manage to keep their shows on the road.
A shop in Muswell Hill is being attacked by liberals for selling produce which is “Really British”; predictably, the owner has been called racist. Were I that owner, the shop would sell nothing but London to Brighton season tickets: you don’t get any more Really British than the grinding misery of that journey. Grinding, expensive misery: they’re £4,452 a pop.
Each ticket would be personally signed by the transport triumvirate — the head of the RMT, the CEO of Southern, and the Transport Secretary — and be embossed with the National Rail motto: “Nobody cares about your miserable life. After all: you’re just about managing.”
Like the impression given by the government, I’m afraid: just about managing. Prime Minister, the people who suffer hell, daily, on the railways: these are your people. The truth stares out at them, and they avert their eyes – but for how long? We never go on strike, but we do always vote. Don’t let the trains be a case of “JAMS tomorrow.”