|>>|| No. 14485
It frustrates me that the only voices being given a platform are the RMT and the government. The RMT are saying that the dispute is about both pay and working practices, Network Rail and the TOCs are saying it's about working practices, but nobody in the media is seriously trying to address what those issues are. Those issues are too dry and technical for the news, they can't be summarised in soundbites and vox pops, but they will ultimately determine the future of our railways.
We've been here before in '84 with the miner's strike. In the popular imagination it was a battle between the miners and the government as mediated through Scargill and Thatcher, but nobody was actually talking about the fundamentals of mining and coal. If you actually look into those issues, the meaning of the strike totally changes.
Britain had already exhausted most of our shallow coal reserves by the late 1950s, but that wasn't a catastrophic problem. The cost of extraction increases with depth, but so does quality. Russia, Germany, Australia and the US have vast and easily mined reserves of soft and impure lignite, but we have unusually large reserves of purer bituminous and anthracitic coals. It cost us more to extract our coal, but we could charge more for it because it burned hotter and cleaner. That quality advantage slowly became irrelevant, which is essential to understanding why we needed coal, just not the coal we were capable of producing.
The switch to diesel locomotives was a massive blow. Obviously steam locomotives burn coal, but less obviously they require high-quality coal to minimise smoke and ash and maximise the efficiency of the boiler. Most steam boilers cannot run on low-quality coal, because they'll choke on the ash within minutes. During the age of steam, we were exporting coal to countries with plenty of their own coal, because they didn't have the quality of coal that we could provide.
The discovery of North Sea Gas massively reduced the demand for coal, but the journey is a bit surprising and roundabout, via the Clean Air Act of 1956. In response to the deadly Great Smog of 1952, the government passed a range of measures that would accidentally stick a knife in the back of British coal years later.
Smokeless fuel became mandatory in urban areas. This gave a short-term advantage to British mines, but the development of better processes for producing smokeless fuel briquettes from cheaper coals quickly nullified that advantage. Smokeless fuel is much more difficult to light than coal, so to encourage the switch, the government provided funding for local authorities to install a gas poker at the main fireplace of every home - a simple gas outlet and burner to ease the process of lighting smokeless fuel. At the time, it didn't occur to anyone that they might want to install a gas fire because of the significant cost difference between town gas and coal. Ten years later when we discovered shitloads of dirt cheap natural gas under the north sea, the Government quietly realised that they had accidentally paid for most of the installation costs of a gas fire when they gave everyone a gas poker.
The shift in energy demand towards electricity in the late 1960s doesn't obviously seem like it would affect the demand for coal, because until quite recently we generated most of our electricity with coal. Again, we come back to the minutiae of coal quality. Coal power stations don't burn solid coal, because that'd cause stoppages due to a claggy accumulation of ash, clinker and tar. Instead, they burn pulverised coal dust that is blown into the boiler with high-pressure steam. The fuel burns in mid-air and waste products are continually blown out of the furnace. This method makes the quality of coal essentially irrelevant and actually gives an advantage to softer coals which are easier to pulverise.
One by one, the economic pillars holding up the British coal industry were undermined by technological change. It happened subtly and slowly without any great fanfare, but those pillars still fell. By 1984, the industry was being propped up by hope, subsidies and good will.
The best we can say of Scargill is that he didn't understand the industry he claimed to represent and was fighting a doomed battle to save an industry he sincerely believed was viable. If we credit him with knowing how coal was mined and used, then the only reasonable conclusion was that he was using the miners as pawns to advance his own personal or political aims. 362 days of strike action didn't prove that mining was essential to the British economy, it proved the exact opposite - the remaining customers of British Coal didn't collapse, they just found other suppliers and other fuels. Thatcher certainly didn't give a shit about the miners, but the intransigence of Scargill in opposing all redundancies turned a gradual decline into an abrupt end. We could have planned that decline, we could have spread the pain out, we could have used retraining and job creation schemes to stop entire communities from failing, but Scargill simply refused to negotiate any outcome that involved job losses. He turned the dispute into an all-or-nothing gambit and lost, at terrible cost to the miners.
Obviously I'm not suggesting that the entire rail industry could end up being shuttered, but you would hope that Mick Lynch has some knowledge of the Beeching Report. Between 1962 and 1967, more than half of the train stations in Britain were permanently closed, despite massive public opposition. More than 5,000 miles of track was decommissioned forever. The longer and more disruptive these strikes are, the less Lynch will have to bargain with. If rail commuters start buying cars and rail freight customers invest in road haulage, it'll be very difficult to win them back. If further strikes are all but guaranteed, then the threat of a strike becomes hollow and management have very little incentive to cooperate. The government have been looking for an excuse to stop subsidising the railways; their willingness to drop the axe and the number of people willing to support them increases with every day of disruption. Unless the RMT can put forward a realistic proposal that serves the interests of their members while also ensuring the sustainability of the railways, they might find that they don't have much of a railway to come back to.