Railway roulette is pushing travellers from trains onto planes

How long, asks a traveller from York, should I allow to reach Manchester airport by rail for a 4.30pm flight? My view: plan to travel on a fast, direct TransPennine Express train, leaving at 12.20pm and arriving at 2.09pm. But since there is a significant risk that this service, like many each day, will be cancelled by the train operator, check on the day and be prepared to get to York station early for an 11.37am departure via Sheffield and Manchester Piccadilly that gets in at 2pm; it uses three different train operators but none of them is TransPennine Express.

The questioner, though, was aghast at my answer: “I was planning to arrive there four hours ahead at least. They have terrible queues for security.”

Last spring, it was certainly the case that Manchester airport – and others – had some very long waits going through the checks to airside. However, even in the early morning – when some passengers on flights at 11am have added to the problem by getting there four hours early – allowing an hour should be ample. But the reaction shows how strong opinions about the likelihood of travel disruption can be quickly formed – and then stay there.

I mention that because another reader asks: “How likely do you think it is that there will be more rail strikes over Easter? We want to go from London to Edinburgh on 7 April and return on 11 April. It’s about the same price Lumo as flying from Stansted with easyJet. I would prefer to get the train. But if we book and then need to cancel if strikes are announced, it will probably be too late to get a cheap easyJet flight instead.”

I read the question with an increasingly heavy heart, because the dilemma shines a light on the currently miserable state of the railways. Travellers want to do the right thing: opting for a low-impact, low-stress journey on the excellent low-cost train operator, Lumo. The firm shuttles between the English and Scottish capitals five times a day and charges, in my experience, very reasonable fares.

Yet on 16 March, the service will be curtailed by the next strike by members of the RMT union working for Network Rail. Even though Lumo is not involved in a dispute with the RMT, the East Coast main line that its trains run on are controlled by Network Rail signallers. Early and late trains are likely to be cancelled.

It is too early to say whether the union will call its Network Rail members out on another strike for Easter. The overtime ban it plans may have some effect on coverage of signallers’ shifts, but because the East Coast main line is so crucial for passengers and freight I would discount this risk.

The RMT – as well as the train drivers’ union, Aslef – has shown a propensity for striking on days with a high level of leisure travel. An RMT walk-out over Christmas wiped out more than half the services on 24 December. So there is a non-zero chance that another strike could be called. The exact probability depends on what happens on 16 March.

If, as the union hopes, the stoppage is solidly supported, the RMT leadership will be encouraged to stage more industrial action: I see no possibility that ministers, having made their “best and final offer,” will give significant ground. That view was reinforced this week by the Rail Delivery Group – representing train operators, and effectively directed by ministers – which told the RMT that national negotiations were off.

The group’s Chairman, Steve Montgomery, told Mick Lynch of the RMT that unless the current pay offer is put to union members, there would be no future talks.

“I regretfully believe we have reached an impasse on progressing our industry-level discussions on pay and workforce reforms,” he wrote.

Mr Lynch says: “Our members will now take sustained and targeted industrial action over the next few months.” The airlines must be delighted. This dismal stalemate is reinforcing the impression that anyone who relies on the railways is a loser – they are paying, from this week, 5.9 per cent more for the most unreliable services since records began – and that’s when no strikes are called.

The government’s betting is that significant numbers of union members will defy the strike instruction on 16 March. If this happens, it may be that the RMT will seek further talks which will comprise finding them an “off ramp” that they can put to members.

I don’t know which way it will turn out, but in the position of the Edinburgh-bound reader I would happily commit to Lumo – knowing the odds are very much in favour of the trip going ahead as planned. But the evidence is that passengers are staying away because there is little resilience in the system.

I can understand why others will fret – and continue to do so even when the miserable conflict is eventually over. The questions travellers ask reveal long memories. Railway roulette is doing no favours to anyone.

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