OPINION - Our economy needs a rail deal now, not later

 (Christian Adams)
(Christian Adams)

For commuters, shoppers, retailers and the hospitality industry, it is shaping up to be the nightmare before and after Christmas. The RMT union has announced further rail strike action to take place at peak shopping and office party season, as part of a continuing dispute over pay.

The RMT rejected an offer earlier this year of a four per cent pay rise this year and next. With inflation running at double digits, such a deal would represent a real-terms pay cut. But the answer cannot be to force London and large swathes of the country to a halt, just at the time that businesses are desperate to claw back some revenue in the run-up to Christmas.

No one wants our hospitality and retail sectors to fall over or passengers to decide travelling by train is simply no longer worth the hassle. The Government must use its convening powers to bring the unions and rail companies around the negotiating table.

There will be an agreement at some point. The question is, how much damage will be inflicted on the high street in the meantime?

Relief of buses U-turn

In better news for commuters, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has performed a partial U-turn on controversial plans to scrap some 22 bus routes and cut the frequency of nearly 60 others, following a huge backlash from passengers.

More than 20,000 people made their views known after the cost-cutting proposals, first revealed in June, threatened key central London routes. This is hugely welcome. Londoners, particularly the low-paid and those who live far from a Tube or train station, are reliant on buses to get around. But it is concerning that Transport for London is increasingly reliant on council tax and business rates for cash injections.

This is, in effect, further evidence of the punitive nature of the government bailouts, including an order for TfL to break even by April 2023 and reduce bus costs by four per cent. Indeed, some cuts to services are still on the way — four routes will be cut and roughly 22 per cent of the initial proposals will be implemented. As a result, more passengers will have to change buses to reach their destination.

There will still be costs: the Mayor’s most recent council tax increase, of £31.93 in April, included £20 for TfL. That appears set to continue for at least a further two years. With Tube and bus numbers hovering at about 80 per cent of pre-pandemic averages and strict strings attached by the Government, more tough decisions may be around the corner.

Sainsbury’s on board

Sainsbury’s has become the first big backer of our On the Breadline Christmas appeal in partnership with Comic Relief. The supermarket has donated £500,000 — money that will target food insecurity in London and across the country. That makes the total £1.5 million in the past two days, after Comic Relief’s £1 million pledge.

As Britain prepares for one of the toughest winters for a generation, we ask those who can — from businesses to our readers — to donate what they can for this vital cause.