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Long version interview with Andy McDonald

24 November 2017

For a piece in TSSA Update, our Media and Communications Officer Kerry Abel met Shadow Transport Minister and MP for Middlesborough, Andy McDonald. The full transcript has been reproduced here.

Kerry Abel: The rail industry doesn’t really plan ahead and doesn’t use the skills it’s got at the moment so they bring in consultants at every stage and then have what they call ‘Used to Best Advantage’ so we want them to plan better so they can train staff better.

Andy McDonald: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The absence of planning, this has been a consistent theme for us over the last several months and concentrated in the last few weeks as well. We’ve been saying this stop start process doesn’t lend itself to any proper strategic thinking. It doesn’t assist in terms of planning and recruitment and retention of skills. Those that have been contracted to undertake some of the major works eg. Crossrail in particular – they have made it an objective to have much greater gender balance in the workforce and they can point to some significant successes in that respect, but it is *still* is a very male dominated industry right across the piece. You walk into a room in any sphere of transport and it’s just dominated by men. So absolutely, we’ve got to make sure that those good achievements that have been achieved in some of these projects are carried all the way through the supply chain and we get a better reflection.

But of course, we’re now starting, not starting but putting out publicly some of the initial work that we’ve been undertaking about the future of the railway. We’ve got a very attractive proposition to make which is bringing the operations into public ownership and that’s immensely popular. It’s not just with Labour Party members and Labour Party supporters. It’s widely popular, but it’s understanding in the first instance what are the difficulties that people face in using the railway and Ian’s done some incredibly powerful work by way of survey and research to get those answers about what are the experiences of people on a day to day basis. And it’s illuminating. And of course that research about fragmentation included 100 members of TSSA staff members of that that response from TSSA people.

KA: Can you say a little bit about that research, the themes that have come out of it?

AM: We did a survey about staff to look at the front-line views and we did a survey of the public and then we also did a sweep of the various official reports into the railway which have also been pretty scathing. And so if you wanted to summarise the last one first, McNulty report, Bowe report, if you look into them in detail they are pretty critical of fragmentation but they don’t offer the obvious solution of less fragmentation, they try to work around it because of course if you start from the supposition that you’ve got the have privatised railway, it’s got to be in bits, that’s the nature of it, so it’s only really Labour that’s in the position to step back and take a less blinkered view and do something that takes the fragmentation out of it. So that’s the strategic management of the report.

When you talk to passengers you get this cry of anguish really. There’s about a third of passengers that don’t experience fragmentation because they’re just doing journeys back and forth on their commuter lines but those that ever make any more complex journey and their stories are quite grieving really and you realise that it really puts people off using the railway.

When we talked to staff, particularly, which was TSSA particularly, you get the same themes, you know, there’s a mess at ticketing, there’s all sorts of different rules, that the railway doesn’t take any responsibility to get from one side to the other. But then you get a whole load of other things, thing that are much more specific staff view of duplication of functions, two different train operating company – people standing on the same platform seeing off trains next to each other.

And a whole list of professional things, the fact that people who are trained up within a single company rather than having moved across, they don’t have the overview that people would have had – did have when their career path was much more varied and this actually really matters when it comes to understanding and talking to other parts of the railway. If you don’t actually have insights to other peoples’ jobs, that’s a real issue. So we got this three layers of problems of fragmentation, so that’s what we’re referring to. And we’ve just had Chris Gibb’s report on Southern. So apart from keeping a key part of the report a secret, Appendix 9 which we’re not allowed to see.

KA: You’re not allowed to see it?!

AM: Nobody’s allowed to see that! It’s the same for the Ministers in the Department for Transport (DfT) and so it isn’t a public document, that’s a report that’s totally redacted. And that’s because they’re claiming some sort of commercial confidentiality. The point I was making within the report that Chris Gibb highlights is that there are three station managers at London Victoria, now if that doesn’t demonstrate the ridiculous duplication and fragmentation in the railway then I don’t know what does! That was quite illuminating and he points that out.

KA: So my opening question was going to be – I remember hearing you speak at a TSSA conference and I was impressed by your knowledge of the railway but your passion for it and I wondered where that comes from?

AM: Well, I think the reason I ended up in this position was because when I came in as a member of Parliament in 2012, what was stimulating me was the peripheral attitude that DfT and central government had to constituencies like mine in terms of connectivity and service and we had a whole host of issues in terms of the electrification issues that have been crying out for such a long time. We’ve got the third largest port in the UK that isn’t properly connected and we want to see that happen. My constituency is the heart of a conurbation of 660,000, not electrified and no direct connection to the capital. We were persevering, having to tolerate and suffer the pace of trains which have long since out-lived their shelf-life. And it was that sense of, not just injustice but an absolute rank failure to provide people with a decent railway transport system in so many parts of the country. Which of course leads to a failure to grow that economy; to get people into productive work; so on and so forth.

The arguments are obvious, if you don’t have that ability to move, your productivity levels are low, and so that was a stimulus from me. I’ve had to learn quickly about the industry, I wouldn’t pretend to be a knowledgeable the way some people who have spent their entire lives in the industry, so I bow to their greater knowledge and their longevity. Once you get into this issue it is absolutely fascinating. What I have learned is that everybody who’s involved in the railway industry is so passionately committed. They see the sense and the benefits, and they have an overwhelming desire to produce the best possible service. And I think this government doesn’t appreciate that.

The workforce is so committed to making this work and providing the best service for passengers and their voices should be listened to. They have the expertise. When I speak to general secretaries, they are an absolute font of knowledge when it comes to intricacies of the railway, they’ve got such a deep understanding of the technical issues, they’ve been immensely informative, and their passion comes through and that’s often not represented in the press and they often get a very raw deal in that respect. So it’s been a fascinating journey for me, because I came into this in January 2016 as shadow Rail Minister and of course the very first task I had to perform was to take the HS2 Bill through the committee stage. I wouldn’t say it was a baptism of fire, but it was certainly in at the deep end. And then we’ve gone on ever since, but it’s really exciting. I think what’s happened over the last several months is that an awful lot of people are now waking up to the notion that actually that the prescription offered by the Labour Party is the right one. And it isn’t just accepting by people who would support us wouldn’t they? It’s now breaking out from that and the credibility of the rationale is gaining momentum across the industry. Because there are those who are working in the current fragmented, complex system who know it to be fragmented and complex and they do crave that unification and integration of the industry.

In lots of respects we’re knocking at a lot of open doors, but it’s essential that we do this work and make sure that people are not only comfortable with what we’re saying but they are also supportive of what we’re about. So that’s the debate that is now developing at quite a pace.

KA: In terms of the vision, this For The Many manifesto is quite impressive. In the Labour Party rail renationalisation has been debated a lot and a core party members’ feeling about where they want to go, but people felt like it wasn’t possible and couldn’t visualise getting there. TSSA members and people working on the railway feel their service has been run down and there’s controversy created around the big infrastructure projects which is frustrating because we’ve not got a top class railway at the moment. Some critics of you, and us say that even running the franchises down is not feasible, so can you say a little bit about the detail of how that’s going to work?

AM: So, yes. I would fundamentally disagree. I think it’s not just feasible it’s the logical way to go about this. We know that there is massive leakage out of this system. The franchising model itself is widely criticised as not being fit for purpose and is not simply described in that way by those who are enthusiastic about public ownership, it’s those who have looked to privatise their model who say this doesn’t work, so we’re on common ground with an awful lot of people about franchising being a busted flush.

There is massive leakage from the system. In terms of the franchising process itself – it’s very costly, its cumbersome, it can often lead to litigation and the whole point of trying to deliver competition and innovation is quite frankly laughable on one track, one service provider. The costs of the process itself are immense! The DfT and its contractors; but also for the TOCs themselves. And now ultimately those costs have to be recouped, from either from the tax payer or the passengers – it’s not a free pass.

There’s an immense expenditure in that. There is expenditure in terms of duplication of function and the complexity of a myriad of players in the system, money leaking out in that way. And then of course at the end of it, we have dividends paid out to the shareholders, so there’s value being extracted from the system never to be seen again. Save for in state-owned companies across Europe who do very nicely thank you much out of the system. And they cannot be blamed when DB can carry on 40-odd percent of their business Europe-side outside Germany, but over 90% of the monies that they derive from that activity are invested into the German rail service. Abellio, Netherlands exactly the same. You can’t blame them. There’s a rationale there that says there’s massive leakage, is that really sustainable? And of course you’ve got the added insult to injury that the only nation state on the planet that can’t run the always in the UK is the UK! People just find that intolerable.

So not only is the rationale right, but the way we want to go about it is sensible, it’s pragmatic, it’s business-like. We’re saying to the bodies to get on with this business, that as those franchises expire they will come across one by one by one.
When we looked at it at the last election, in two terms we could have brought all but one franchise under the franchise umbrella – that’s got to be a moveable feast. If that’s established and the public can see that it works, its clearly going to gain a lot of popularity and credence. Now whether those players want to remain on the stage, I don’t know, that’s a matter for them.
I think its eminently doable, if you’ve got the political will and we can demonstrate that we will save; we will reintegrate; have a simpler, more efficient system, then I think that’s appeal and it’s the right thing to do to produce a better transport system for our country.

In terms of how it would work of course there is a history of franchise operators failing and wishing to hand back the keys because they’ve been over optimistic, shall we say kindly, in their franchise bids. There’s no sign that that will change in the future. In fact, there’s already franchise from Point 2 that look like they will struggle. In fact, of course East Coast at the moment is in an argument with the Dept. of Transport about whether they can meet their commitments. The other thing from a staffing point of view is that with most of these franchises is that it’s not a big deal to take over a franchise. We know that the majority of the staff that do the valuable jobs, they all get TUPEd over, it’s just the top tier of management and of course, all of these are duplicated across the railway. Once you’ve got your management team for running trains. At that point you gain the efficiency, you don’t have to create a new management team for each extra franchise. We know when the franchise change hands at the moment, it’s in large part a cosmetic exercise. Quite literally – changing the uniforms, repainting the trains, and that’s something that’s not as widely appreciated. As it should be really.

KA: A lot of this vision and this very sensible change relies on Labour being in power. So what would you say is the task in the intervening period and how can TSSA members help with that?

AM: Well our task as a shadow cabinet is to prepare for government so that’s what we’re about. Not only to get our policy right, we’ve got to be absolutely on top of the detail in terms of the budget implications. And we’ve got to be ready to go with our legislation. That’s what we’ve got to do here, because we’re confident that whenever the election comes, we will succeed.

I think this Tory government’s on its last legs, I mean it’s just stumbling through Brexit and completely trying to by-pass Parliamentary democracy and that can’t sustain. That’s a disaster for the country if you’ve got the governing Party just treating Parliamentary democracy with such contempt it just won’t last. When that’ll be I do not know but we’ve got to conduct ourselves as a government in waiting. We’ve got to get the arguments progressed, they were well received in 2017 but now is the moment to press ahead with this fantastic movement that we’ve built. 600,00 people nigh on, it’s huge. The talent and ability within that membership is just immense. And we’ve gotta continue the internal conversation with those 600,000 members. But we’ve got to – we’ve really got to stimulate those people to get into conversations in those seats we now need to win. We’re on an election footing all the time so it does mean that were out going into those marginal seats that we need to win continuously, it isn’t going to stop and we need all the help we can get from your members and if people can play their part in that it’s going to be all to the good.

But it’s about the conversations in the workplace and in communities and in families and just trying to get the points across that this government is not fit for purpose and it’s not addressing the needs of the people. That’s why the ‘For The Many Not The Few’ manifesto hit home. Because people recognise their own lives, and these are real solutions to the problems they’re facing on a day to day basis. When it comes to the roll out of Universal Credit - people understand life happens! Something can happen to you, you can be out of work, some other crisis can hit us all and yet we look to the social security system to catch us when we need catching and supporting it isn’t there. The fact that our hospitals are so badly underfunded and our police services are decimated. These are things that people are not prepared to tolerate whilst you’re seeing massive cuts to the taxation of the very very richest in our society, and this total injustice that we have a corporation tax system - we’re still the lowest in the G8! But this government wants to see that rate cut even further to 19% and to 17%.

When our corporate entities who are here because it’s a good country to be in. They can benefit from our infrastructure, we need to improve it undoubtedly, but their staff can access our health system, the education system and everything that goes with it. But they want to have a free pass and they have the lowest possible rates of tax and construct themselves in a way that they pay none at all. People get that and they are fed up to the back teeth of being used, as we have seen in the rail industry, as a commodity from which value can be extracted and yet the corporate world can go on and misbehave. It gives those fantastic companies that have got brilliant industrial relations, who pay their taxes, it puts the burden on them. There’s a better settlement that’s needed for the country and that is the prescription that’s offered. But we’ve got to get those conversations going all the way through and resist this nonsense that is said about…

This is not an extreme left-wing programme, this is bang central. There is nothing on the margins here, despite what the media will say and you heard Jeremy at Conference, you know the Daily Mail run 14 pages trying to character assassinate him. I mean he wants 28 pages next time because they didn’t quite do the job well enough, I mean we’re incredibly well-led, we’ve seen Jeremy’s stature increase since 2015 right across the piece and he continues to grow. He’s always been comfortable in his own skin, because he’s had the courage of his convictions, this is not new thinking to him or John McDonnell or anyone else. These are things that they have felt very passionately about for 40 years or more. So now once you’ve got that as your platform, your faith is unshakable, but of course now there are people acknowledging that he is somebody who they can trust and he is not the demon that some of the right wing press would have us believe.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank TSSA members at the last election, Manuel was 150% behind Jeremy and the membership are of course, their dues into the union are what is supporting a union position.

I don’t think we can over-state this. TSSA should feel very very good about their role. Had they not provided that support, I’m not sure that we would be in this position today, because you hosted phone banks and all sorts. Your office was given over. A huge thank you to them because that was pivotal. Members have already been doing some bloody good stuff. We don’t often stop to say thank you enough and it dawned on me that we’ve been so caught up in taking on an election when nobody thought we’d survive it, pitching into that with all that energy and coming out the other side with a good result. We’re not in government but we did so much better than anyone ever thought we would do.

And being on the front foot now and focusing on policy development, financial consequences and legislative processes. We get caught up in that and sometimes, I’m guilty of it and we don’t say – hang on, there’s an awful lot of people who made this possible and we’ve got to say a huge thank you to them. But maybe we have to get ready to do the same again!

KA: Our members are incredibly passionate about their passengers and talk to them all the time and advocate for them and feel their pain. When our members are most stressed it’s when the company is at its most chaotic and the passengers were taking it out on the staff. It was frustrating for them because they couldn’t defend their companies. In some cases, the staff are embarrassed and as frustrated as the passengers. What is the future for staffing levels, bearing in mind we’ve got increasing security threats? And maybe this is linked, but what is your future for station and train design so that disabled passengers but not just disabled passengers, it’s people with pushchairs, shopping or luggage going on holiday, people who’ve had one too many trying to use the train late at night. What role will staff have in that?

AM: I think the whole approach to staffing has got to be recalibrated because it’s undoubted that the travelling public want to see the visibility of staff. Now we have this with driver only operation and the demands of the industry to increase the roll-out of that. We made it abundantly clear that is something that we are not going to tolerate, no more DOO. There are huge safety issues around it and we saw not that many months ago with the Watford derailment where a driver was incapacitated, and it was the guard that safely evacuated the train. And we saw in the last few days, a brick through the front screen of a train, we need guards in those circumstances. It’s not just about dispatch. There’s a sensible conversation going on in the industry about the safe dispatch of trains, and that gets focussed on as though it’s the only issue in terms of the staffing of trains, it isn’t.

We’ve got heightened security risks, we saw that at Parson’s Green just a few weeks ago, there are issues of hate crimes, sex attacks. We shouldn’t underestimate the power and the benefit of having somebody visible in a uniform, providing that reassurance and importantly making those who would go about those sorts of behaviours thinking twice about doing it in the first instance.

Of course there’s the reassurance of those people who are vulnerable in whatever way that may be or have added requirements in terms of their own mobility. We’ve gone wrong with this completely, the fact that we’re in a situation where it seems to be perfectly acceptable to demand of people with mobility issues that they pre-book, that they give 24hrs or 48 hrs notice, there’s no spontaneity about that at all. Why on earth are we saying to a very large proportion of the population ‘No I’m sorry you’re not going to have the same freedoms as everybody else’? That’s scandalous and unacceptable! We’ve got to build that thinking in to all of our transport modes so that people can move freely without inhibition. The very thought of having railway stations that cannot accommodate people with mobility needs is just totally and utterly beyond the pale and we’ve got to put that right. Making those drastic cuts to the Access for All budget is reprehensible really, I don’t know how people can look themselves in the mirror when they’ve made decisions that obviously impact upon people who’d got some additional difficulties or vulnerabilities, why on earth would you go about a programme like that?

So we’ve got to make sure that as we upgrade our Victorian railway stations, that that’s at the heart of what we do. In new build, clearly that’s got to be properly addressed and we shouldn’t have to worry about that. But you’re absolutely right, that in terms of train design - we’ve seen the benefits of some of the new rolling stock that will come to places like Merseyside, that will be welcome that that has been addressed in such an imaginative way that people will be able to migrate around the network much better in terms of access to the carriages. Seeing that through to all the station designs across that network and along with all the others. It’s got to be right at the top of the agenda to be perfectly honest because it’s been woeful. The stories are legion of people who’ve been trapped – I’ve travelled with Tanni Grey-Thompson from Eaglescliffe, and there was a major refit of that station, it’s only a little station, it’s a platform with a ticket office really. But the access is by way of severe ski slopes on either side of the tracks connected to two towers. You scratch your head to think why on earth, having gone to the trouble of making improvements to the car park, putting a shelter on the platform we haven’t addressed the issue of accessibility for people with disabilities. The housing was there for the lifts, that should have been done and Tanni would quite fiercely resist people giving her resistance as she’s so strong minded. But even as a Paralympian to haul herself up those slopes and down again in wintery conditions is a challenge that nobody should have to undertake.

This is an issue that came out very strongly in the survey of passengers. The responses from people with disabilities were in some respects, even more grieving than the responses from other people. There were a number of people that responded about the fact that the different train operating companies, the splits between them make it a lot more difficult. It is normal that your requirements that you have booked, because they have to book, even when you book, that your requirements don’t get communicated from one TOC to the next, so that when people turn up they expect you to have completely different requirements to what you actually booked with. There are some quotes I’ve got here;

‘Disability assistance is a nightmare, every company have different rules and procedures’
‘My assistance failed at Newcastle, on both outbound and return journeys. I wanted to know why CrossCountry could not have checked me at my point of leaving the train and put down the train ramp. However they just insist the problem is with Virgin East Coast who run the station.’

The likelihood is that they couldn’t get off the train and they end up somewhere completely different.

KA: And staff tell me that the staffing is so low that they don’t have extra capacity to go and meet a person off the train and therefore the company sees it as okay to sacrifice that.

AM: The same goes for the staff as well, if the trains are not properly staffed, you can have the driver taking the train into the sidings and having to wander back from there in whatever circumstances with no illumination. You’ve got to think about them as well.

This business about the fractures of the system, if you bring this out of franchises, you have the potential to make it much better. Yes, we need more staff overall, but I think the thing I would give as an overview because you were asking about staff. The sense that came back was of the staff trying to be the human Polyfilla to cover up the cracks in the system, and really trying very hard and really caring about it. Even to the extent to slightly bend the rules if it meant working with another company.

KA: And facing the brunt of it in terms of verbal abuse and physical abuse.

AM: But the cracks are too deep to smooth over with that human Polyfilla.
That should never be forgotten, that staff are getting the frontline. All of these weaknesses and all of these deficits are vocalised and visited upon by staff who’ve got absolutely no control of the service that’s being provided.

KA: We did a survey about the abuse faced by staff on London Underground to mark the difference between staff being taken out when ticket offices were removed, and abuse just went up. People who work on London Underground know how to deal with large numbers of people at night, in all states. And Tube stations tend to be microcosms for all kinds of difficulties in society and these people who are well used to it were reporting really distressing stories.

AM: Those sorts of tensions are not assisted when a TOC encourages members of the public to strike back. That was so poorly thought through. Who on earth thought that was an appropriate way for a company to get its message out to the travelling public to strike back on staff? I had to take a sharp intake of breath when I saw that.

KA: Passengers have got less truck with that I’ve noticed. Compared to a few years ago, when we take action now, we’ve got more support they understand our role.

Okay. Last question. Bringing rail back into public ownership is the democratic thing to do and the best way of planning a rail service. But in terms of the planet, and public transport being the most environmentally friendly way of travelling around and moving away from cheap flights and relying on air travel. What’s your vision for how we move that forward longer term not just trying to get the situation sorted now?

AM: Longer term is exactly the right thing to fix and what we are saying in terms of growing of the network so that people have that ability to travel the longer distances within the UK by means other than aircraft, you’ve got to set out that vision to the industry over that sort of term. We describe the periods we’re thinking of apposite to the lifetime of rolling stock of what thirty to forty years. So why should you not have a vision of what you want the railway to be across that time span? So that’s very much part of the deal.

But then you’ve got to have a consistency of follow-through in your planning and your programmes and sadly what we’ve seen through control period (CP)5 has been pausing, unpausing, delay, cancellations and that assists no one. But it’s worse still than when you renege on promises that you’ve made and come back with the offer of bi-mode electric diesel trains.

Now, we’ve got an air pollution crisis in the country, we’ve got 50,000 dying each year because of air pollution and the deaths that are related thereto. How insane is it to turn the clock back to and start to develop and bring back more diesel onto the network instead of embracing greater electrification across the piece? So it doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a sensible thing to do in terms of a business model, because of the damage that heavy trains cause to the track and and so on and so forth but for a train to leave London under electric traction, get to Cardiff and then convert to diesel is just an anathema. I don’t know what the thinking is, where anybody could think that was the right thing to do at all.

We’ve got a huge task in terms of the long-term vision and planning. The method of traction that you’re going to embrace so that its environmentally friendly and meets our obligations in terms of emissions and so on. But also then the connectivity to the modes of transport, and it’s not just about trains, it’s got to be about how that fits with the public transport system. Getting people out of their motor cars has got to be our objective, but you’re only ever going to achieve that if you’ve got a decent public transport offer.

London is marvellous, its got a terrific public transport network, but if you leave the capital and go out to major towns and cities there just is not that alternative there for people so they will continue to hang on to their vehicle because the public transport system isn’t there as a realistic alternative for them. All of that’s got to be thought through and the devolution process has got to make sure that those areas are able to decide for themselves what sort of response they can produce to their localities’ needs. That’s a broad overview.

KA: Does that include freight on rail as well? Because you said this as well, we’ve got a train that’s going from Shanghai to Barking in Essex every week with all the products from China and we’re not able to a) get it across to Liverpool to our biggest port, we’re missing a trick and we’re not able to send things back.

AM: Well we are and port connectivity is critically important. I started, you asked me earlier about why I came into it, it was one of the issues in my area that we have a huge port in my area, we have a huge port that doesn’t have the connectivity that it should have. We have the same all the way down the east coast and it’s just frightening that all of that freight is put on lorries to trundle across the country.

So we’ve got to have in our objectives, a transfer of greater volumes of freight from road to rail. I was aghast that the Minister in the DfT thought putting platoons of automated juggernauts on our road network was a sensible proposal. I can’t think of anything more inappropriate in terms of clogging up our road network. We have platoons, we call them freight trains, thats what we should use and develop. But the developments that we’re focussing on, we want to see the capacity freed up on the existing network to accommodate greater freight usage. It’s critically important but it’s also the sensible thing to do and if we can get that better defined in terms of the rail-freight interchanges and the multi-modal distribution parks, that will be all to the good. That’s going to be well-embedded in our planning and thinking.

KA: Good. Is there anything else you want to say that I missed?

AM: No, I think we’ve just about covered it.

KA: Thanks very much.

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