Labour Research December 2020


Trouble lies on the road ahead

Public transport workers have put their lives on the line to get other key workers, as well as food and medicine, where they need to be throughout the pandemic. Unions have been fighting for their safety — now they’re also gearing up to fight attacks on workers’ jobs and pay and conditions.

Many public transport workers lost their lives in the first wave of the pandemic when adequate safety measures were not in place, according to Bobby Morton, national officer for the Unite general union.

For example, a July 2020 independent review into the deaths of London bus drivers from COVID-19 confirmed that in London alone, 34 bus workers are reported to have died of the infection.

The interim report, London bus drivers review, focuses on the deaths of 27 bus drivers between March and May 2020. It says bus and coach drivers are among the occupations that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported as having “elevated mortality” from COVID.

Unite “swung into action immediately”, says Morton, securing safety measures on buses that include cashless journeys or chutes to avoid drivers having to handle cash, and blocking air holes in the shields on drivers’ cabs.

Transport unions also pushed the government to introduce mandatory face coverings on public transport (although they are still fighting for proper enforcement of these rules). But now the union is also starting to see attacks on members’ jobs, pay and conditions.

The COVID-19 outbreak has severely disrupted the public transport system. During the first lockdown, when hospitality, leisure and non-essential shops were closed and a significant proportion of the workforce was furloughed or working from home, tube and rail use dropped to less than 5% of their usual levels, according to the Campaign for Better Transport (CfBT). Bus use dropped to between 10% and 15%.

This drop in passengers has had “profound implications for operators as fare revenue has evaporated”, CfBT reported, and the government stepped in with financial support (see box on page 11).

The top 10 largest private bus operators in the UK, “are all making a profit despite the coronavirus pandemic,” Morton told Labour Research.

Government financial support during pandemic

According to Campaign for Better Transport (CfBT) report COVID-19 recovery — renewing the transport system, bus operators in England (outside London — see box top of page 12) were given a £167 million COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant paid over 12 weeks on the basis of distance driven.

They continued to receive £200 million of existing funding under the Bus Services Operators Grant, on the basis of fuel consumed before the pandemic, despite reduced services. Up to £30 million of extra funding, originally earmarked for new services, was also redirected to local authorities to maintain existing subsidies for concessionary fares.

In early August, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced extra support for bus and tram services in England (outside London) worth up to £256 million, bringing the total support during the pandemic for bus and tram services to at least £700 million.

In March, the government suspended DfT-let rail franchises and replaced them with Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs). These lasted six months to September 2020.

Ahead of the government’s 18-month extension of the arrangements in September, when it replaced the EMAS with Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs), the RMT rail union published its report, Profiteering at a time of crisis: how the public is funding profiteering on rail during the coronavirus.

The July 2020 report showed Britain’s private rail companies stood to make almost £500 million in profits out of the crisis over a 12-month period if the government went ahead with the extension of the bailouts.

Analysis of ministerial answers to questions in Parliament indicate that the government’s EMAs would see it hand over around £115 million in operating profits to the train operating companies (TOCs) over the initial six-month period, and £231 million over a 12-month period, the union reported.

Under the EMAs, it said, the government is also “picking up the tab” in full for the lease charges that would be paid by the TOCs to the rolling stock companies (ROSCOs) who own Britain’s trains. RMT’s analysis of the ROSCOs’ accounts show that, in the last year, they made profits of £241 million.

Unlike the franchised TOCs, the situation is different for open-access TOCs, such as Hull Trains and Grand Central.

These take full commercial risk, running on infrastructure owned by a third party, and buy paths on a chosen route where rail services run under franchises.

The RMT points out that these TOCs have received no government assistance during the pandemic. Unions are demanding the government provides financial assistance for these operators and ensure that all jobs and conditions are protected.

Fire and rehire at Go Ahead

Nevertheless, Unite reported earlier this year that the Go Ahead transport group was “using COVID-19 as a cover for making savage cuts” at Manchester bus company Go North West.

Go Ahead plc is a profitable company, the union says, and expects its overall operating profit for the year ending 27 June 2020 to be between £63 million and £75 million. But Unite says the company was intending to “fire” the entire workforce and “rehire” those that agree to accept inferior contracts. The cuts include changes the union says would cost each driver £3,500 a year on average, lead to an unpaid increase in working hours, and slash sick pay arrangements.

Morton said: “One of these attacks on terms and conditions is a reduction in sick pay at the very time they need it, as they are working on the frontline and potentially exposed to the virus.” The union launched an international campaign to fight the changes and consulted the 500 drivers on taking industrial action.


Meanwhile, rail unions secured safety improvements through the Rail Industry Coronavirus Forum (RICF). The RICF was formed of rail unions, TSSA, RMT, ASLEF and Unite and employers — the train operating companies (TOCs) and Network Rail. It also included the railway safety regulator at the Office of Rail and Road and experts from the Railway Safety Standards Board.

“Some companies like Network Rail have been very good and provided workers with masks and visors from the start,” TSSA policy advisor Rob Jenks told Labour Research. “The train operating companies were not as good.”

In April, the rail unions, most TOCs and Network Rail reached agreement on a set of Emergency Working Principles through the RICF which, he said, has helped a lot.

In May, the unions and employers also agreed a Social Distancing Agreement as a set of principles that individual employers should then implement in their respective companies following discussion with the appropriate union reps in their organisation.

Passenger numbers began to pick up in the summer following the lockdown earlier in the year, but the increase in COVID cases since September meant they began to reduce again (see box). Pre-COVID, there was already a trend showing a reduction in the number of annual season rail tickets purchased, and an increase in the number of standard daytime tickets purchased, as a result of flexible working arrangements including homeworking.

Rail passenger journeys

Before the pandemic hit, record numbers of people were using the railways and they were enjoying a “golden age” not seen since the 1920s.

The impact of COVID has been huge. Department for Transport figures show that in February 2020, passengers were making 22.3 million weekly journeys on the railways in England, Scotland and Wales.

By the week ending 23 May, that had fallen to just 1.7 million journeys a week, with only 53% of services (103,000) running.

By September, services were ramped up to 85% of the pre-COVID timetable, with 135,000 services running and weekly passenger journeys up to 9.8 million.

The peak number of weekly journeys was 10.48 million in mid-September.

By mid-October this had fallen to nearly 9.4 million, coinciding with a resurgence of the virus.

Research published by the CIPD HR professionals’ body in July suggests this will continue. It shows employers expect the proportion of people working from home on a regular basis, once the crisis is over, to increase to 37% compared to 18% before the pandemic. They also expect the proportion of staff who work from home all the time to rise to 22% post-pandemic compared to 9% before lockdown measures started to be imposed in March 2020.

Jenks said he fears for “what the railways will look like in the future”. The government has made clear its anti-trade union agenda, including threatening to restrict industrial action on the railways. It has also emphasised that it wants to pay back the money it has borrowed during the pandemic.

Transport for London funding

In May, Transport for London (TfL) received a bespoke funding package consisting of a grant of £1.095 billion and a loan of £505 million. This ran until October 2020 and was conditional on London mayor Sadiq Khan agreeing to fare increases, changes to the congestion charge and concessionary fares, and other conditions.

In October, the government reportedly offered a further £1 billion over six months, conditional on TfL imposing measures including fare and tax rises and cuts to concessions for children, young people and pensioners.

Rail unions joined the TUC; groups representing children and students, pensioners, disabled people and passengers; as well as the public ownership campaign We Own It to call on prime minister Boris Johnson to end the government’s attack on the capital’s transport system. In a letter signed by 13 organisations, they said the government’s offer amounted to “a new round of austerity cuts that will throw more families into poverty”.

Train drivers’ union ASLEF said it was handing out a “political punishment beating” to the public sector body while handing out bailouts to the privatised train companies (see box on page 11).

“We saw NHS workers clapped but given no pay rise,” said ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan. “Now it seems to be the turn of railway workers to be attacked.

“Pensions are deferred wages and Johnson’s attempt to take away the money our members have earned is something we will not accept.”

At the beginning of last month, Khan announced “an eleventh-hour agreement” with the government on a £1.8 billion funding deal to keep tube, bus and other TfL services in the capital running until March 2021. ASLEF said he had forced the government to make a U-turn on some of the extreme proposals it put forward, like removing free travel for under-18s and extending the London Congestion Charge Zone. 

But ASLEF London Underground organiser Finn Brennan said he was “disappointed that this is another short-term fix and means another £160 million of cuts”.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT has said from the outset that TfL staff who have been there day in and day out at the sharp end keeping essential travel operating and London moving should not pay the price for this pandemic. We will fight any attempt to attack jobs, pensions, working conditions and safety.”

And while the private rail companies have received “no strings bailouts”, Unite secretary for London and Eastern region Pete Kavanagh pointed out that “Londoners still have the threat of being punished for the pandemic hanging over them”.

He added: “Unite has already received assurances that the latest funding deal will not result in the terms and conditions of TfL’s employees being reduced or their pensions being cut. Such assurances are needed for the long-term.”

Jenks added that the government has taken a firmer grip on the railways during the crisis through Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs) and Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs — see box on page 11) “and we are concerned about the next round of annual pay claims with TOCs.

“There are fears the government will take greater control in terms of saving money, driving down terms and conditions, and cutting jobs now it has the biggest stake in passenger train companies and more direct control.”

Some commentators have described EMRAs — which transport secretary Grant Shapps said “are designed to bring the rail franchising system to an end” — as a stepping-stone to rail nationalisation. But unions point out that the trains are still being privately run and money is still going to the private TOCs (see Labour Research, October 2020, page 4).

The RMT called on the government to “cut out the middleman and bring all UK rail franchises into public ownership once and for all”. It said any government plans to use the new EMRA contracts to move to a new privatisation system modelled on the type of management contracts already used on the London Overground would mean “profits and dividends will continue to flow out of UK Railways into the pockets of train operating companies and shareholders rather than be reinvested in our railways”.

Rail unions are calling on both the Westminster and Scottish governments to follow the example of the Welsh government, which announced in October that it would bring rail services in Wales back into public ownership.

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said although this decision has been announced in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, in order to protect services for passengers, to maintain jobs, and to keep the momentum of the South East Wales Metro project — designed to link people and jobs across South East Wales, “we hope that it sends a message to the governments at Holyrood and Westminster about the way forward for our industry”.

Campaign for Better Transport, COVID-19 recovery — renewing the transport system (

London government, Mayor sees off plan to extend C-Charge as deal reached on TfL funding (

RMT, Profiteering at a time of crisis: how the public is funding profiteering on rail during the coronavirus (

RMT, RMT responds to Government’s extension of Emergency Measures (

TfL, Initial assessment of London bus driver mortality from COVID-19 (

Unite, Unite launches campaign to stop Go Ahead Group using COVID 19 as cover to slash pay and conditions (

Unite, Transport for London funding agreement a ‘fair deal’ but challenges remain warns Unite (