By Jessica Webb

As I sat down at my desk this morning and opened my inbox with a little sense of trepidation, I couldn’t help but think of how Rail Minister Wendy Morton must be feeling.

This morning we woke to the news that train companies have been cutting some operations and implementing revised timetables with an average of around one in ten staff absent across the industry. This means commuters returning to work and children getting the train to school today will be facing cancelled or reduced services. Not a great way to start the year.

Arguably this is not the fault of the train companies who are trying their best to manage staff shortages as they respond to the challenges posed by Omnicron. However, this isn’t exactly building passenger confidence in returning to the railways.

The minister will also have to tackle the increase in strikes across the network. The rail unions have had substantial success with action in the last six months, most notably with the ScotRail strikes in the lead up to COP26. Christmas saw strikes from CrossCountry and to pour misery onto an already difficult problem, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) threatens strikes over job losses in 2022 as the cost of living continues to increase in the UK.

For passengers facing delays and cancellations this week there will be a bitter taste in the mouth knowing their fares will be going up 3.8% in March, exactly the same time as that cost of living crisis is expected to hit home, with increased energy and tax bills.

Returning to passengers to the railways will need to be one of the rail minister’s key tasks for the coming months with taxpayers having spent over £14 billion bailing them out in the pandemic, the Government will be desperate for the railways started paying for themselves a bit more in 2022 – something which is no doubt causing a lot of tension between the Department for Transport and the Treasury.

Today’s Ipsos MORI polling on Government performance suggested that 66% think that the Government is doing a bad job on reducing inequalities between different regions (i.e. levelling up). There is a real opportunity for the minister to show the value of rail in solving a lot of the nation’s issues around job opportunities, decarbonisation and economic recovery. However, getting space for more rail commitments in the eagerly expected Levelling Up White Paper feels like an uphill battle.

After she manages to clear these issues from her inbox – the minister will then need to start working on delivering on the White Papers produced by the Department for Transport last year. She will now take ownership of the Williams-Shapps plan for rail and will be working on policy outcomes for the Integrated Rail Plan, the Transport Decarbonisation plan, not to mention elements of the Union Connectivity Review. It’s not a to-do list to be envious of but lots to get stuck into if you are a public affairs professional, obsessed with the detail. Like me!