“Rail will go the same way as coal if the unions get what they want”

Lord Hendy has repeatedly tweeted his support for saving station ticket offices, urging his supporters to sign a petition to ensure they are not cut.

The RMT, alongside dissident group The Association of British Commuters, say the government is considering scrapping all ticket offices in the country. Government sources do not deny that some ticket offices are for the hit, but dispute the narrative that they will all be closed overnight. That’s not Hendy’s jurisdiction. Ticketing is the problem for train operators.

But he does not hide the fact that they have to leave. As commissioner of Transport for London, Hendy oversaw the closure of swathes of London Underground ticket offices because the machines associated with the Oyster card made them effectively redundant.

“TfL [Transport for London] demonstrated that, in fact, you can manage a very large public transit system with people in the modern world who are very comfortable just going out with a phone or a credit card,” he says. “If your customers’ behavior changes, you need to reflect that.”

Cash is no longer king

The abolition of ticket offices is part of the modernization of public transport that has marked Hendy’s career. Back when Ken Livingstone was mayor of London, Hendy, who was commissioner of TfL under the leader of the left as well as Johnson, implemented a cashless system on buses.

“I took money out of the buses. I’m very proud of that,” he says despite Ken Livingstone’s unfounded opposition that it would hurt the poorest.

If it is the demands for salary increases from the unions of railway workers that have hit the headlines, a second part of the challenge concerns the modernization of work practices.

Union power is such that it can take up to nine people to change an outlet. Meanwhile, staff at Birmingham’s New Street station are asking for 12 minutes of ‘walking time’ after their common rooms were moved a minute’s walk away.

Hendy says, “I can’t stand being associated with an industry that’s become so obsolete that it becomes irrelevant. When I worked for London Transport in the 1970s, I think a lot of the management had given up. We had a terrible lack of staff. We had bad work practices. The service to the public was appalling.

“You [have] must evolve with the times. You cannot become useless. Look what happened to the coal industry. We do not have it.

Railroads, he continues, were once a “perishable commodity.” In other words, passengers had no choice but to use them, whether it was for the daily commute, to football or even to the north of Scotland on holiday.

“But I think we’re just proving that’s not necessarily the case. People can change their lives a lot.

“I did an interview with [radio presenter] Nick Ferrari yesterday. Over 10 years ago they would have sent me a car. I can do it on Zoom now… We’ve all learned to live in new ways with the pandemic and technology.

So the British railways could go the same way as the coal mines if the unions get what they want? “Yes,” he said. “Or the railways are going in the same direction as 30 or 40 years ago which is actually a managed decline. And why would you want to be there? It’s a horrible thing to happen.

“Unions should not be banned”

Despite all the grief, Hendy is not someone who believes the labor movement should be banned. And he refuses to accept that the unions still oppose modernization.

“I don’t think those two things are the same thing,” he says.

“A long, long time ago, when he was first mayor, Boris said: ‘Why do we have unions?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I do not understand the question’.

“He said, ‘Well, we didn’t have any at the Spectator.’ I said, ‘How many people did you have?’ He said, “About 40,” and I said, “I got 29,000 and I don’t know them all.”

“Obviously if you employ a lot of people there are pretty good management reasons why you want them to organize, you want someone to do your job and in fact it has to to be a respected person who can do things on their behalf.”

Dealing with Johnson’s bizarre and wacky ideas has, and continues to, take Hendy’s time. He would regularly get a phone call on Sunday mornings from the Tory politician if he was considering writing about transport in his weekly column for The Telegraph to get ideas flowing.

Perhaps most eye-catching in recent years has been a request to examine the feasibility of building a railway tunnel under the Irish Sea from Stranraer in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland. With a price tag of £15billion, the link has been described as the “dumbest tunnel in the world” by the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

“It wasn’t a crazy idea,” says Hendy. “But it’s hard to do. And actually, lest anyone think that was a completely crazy question; it’s been in and out of people’s minds since the late 1800s.”

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