THE BLOG

Free London Underground

06/02/2014 12:28 GMT | Updated 08/04/2014 10:59 BST

I had many discussions with my Grandad, on a huge variety of topics. We usually disagreed. I will always respect, love and admire him. I hope he felt the same about me. But on many things we didn't agree.

Largely that's because of the work he did in providing his children, and his children's children, with a life he simply could not have imagined as a child himself. My Grandad, the eldest of six, his father a mechanic and sometime chauffeur, was proudly, staunchly and steadfastly working class. For him, the advantages and privileges I enjoy would have been as attainable and realistic as a hoverboard or a robot butler.

To me, he had lived in a (fairly comical) period drama. One evening over dinner, he and his siblings wondered what had happened to the family's pet turkey. It transpired that the pet turkey had become the family's dinner. He also remembered his mother ordering him back up to the house to retrieve the family documents during an air raid on his native York. Just as he turned to run back out to the air raid shelter at the end of the garden, he was blown back into the house. A bomb had landed two houses away.

And so of course our outlook on life was different. He was a trade unionist, a member of the Labour Party (at a time when that meant something), and proud of it. He championed his colleagues at a national level, and he represented the people of his local area with an iron will and an ideological certainty that we would kill to see in our politicians today. I would kill for that ideological certainty myself.

I, on the other hand, am almost embarrassingly middle class. Both of my parents went to University, and both now work in independent schools. I attended these schools from the age of seven (my brother from the age of 3), and have been able to enjoy precisely the privileges that my Grandad will have seen as unfair advantages.

When discussing football, he would bemoan the amount of money changing hands, the vulgarity of it all. I would understand his point, but argue that a club which brings in huge revenues from supporters around the world should distribute some of that wealth to those who ultimately created it - the players. He would understand my point too. Soon we would move on to the next topic, with the same pattern. We both, ultimately, enjoyed the debate. And I cherish and miss those times.

But there was one, rare occasion on which I remember us agreeing. When I lived in London, after my Nannie was sadly no longer with us, my Grandad would come and visit me during the week. We would go for lunch, or I would take an afternoon off and spend some time with him. I would leave my office in London and head to meet him outside Covent Garden tube station, finding him immaculately dressed in his double-breasted greatcoat, trilby and sparkling smile, and greet him with a huge hug.

While his passion was politics, my Grandad spent his working life on the railways. At one point he worked full time to support a young family, while attending night classes every day of the week to qualify as an engineer. My mind boggles at the energy and tenacity he must have had. Ultimately, this was how he provided me with the life he could never have imagined for his grandchildren.

But his life's work also provided him with free train travel (hence the visits to London) as well as an insight into the workings of the railways that few could match. I remember visiting the national railway museum as a child, expecting to be bored rigid by a museum full of trains, but finding myself captivated by the intricacies of how a train's wheel interacted with the rail, or how my grandad had contributed to the design and introduction of the Pandrol Clip which was almost ubiquitous across Europe's railways.

And so, for one of his visits, we headed from our usual lunch in Covent Garden to the nearby London Transport Museum. I knew he would enjoy the exhibits, the opportunity to reminisce and the chance to chat, and I knew I would enjoy his stories.

What I didn't know was that we would find ourselves agreeing.

The media is awash with stories of this week's tube strike, and understandably so. No longer a Londoner (I lasted a mere 3 years), it is sometimes easy for me to forget the misery of cramming your face into a nearby armpit in order to get to work or, on the precious occasions you managed to get a seat, being confronted by a sweaty crotch being thrust worryingly close to your face. For those three years, the tube was one of my great bugbears.

But worse than that, far worse than that, were the times when the tube wasn't working. Strikes or engineering works which forced you onto buses, or to undertake a 4 mile walk to the office, were the devil. Trade Unions, regardless of my beloved Grandad's past involvement, were the devil. Far better, I told my Grandad as we viewed the exhibits, to do away with tube staff altogether. Automate the whole thing. Hell, surely even the drivers could be replaced by computers these days.

To my utter surprise, my Grandad agreed.

Back in the 1970s, he told me, he was privy to some calculations that had been done over the cost of running the tube. You know the 70s - flares, big hair. Kevin Keegan playing for Liverpool in eyewateringly short shorts. Heath, Wilson and Callaghan. Abba. The decade of the Trade Unions.

Well back then, before computers, digitisation and automation, it was calculated that, given the level of subsidy that the tube received from the government, it would have made little or no financial difference to do away with all ticketing staff, and make the London Underground free to use. The two cancelled each other out. Working Londoners were paying their tube fare purely to keep another Londoner in a job.

My Grandad, of course, argued that the Trade Unions were so strong that it could never have happened. I understood his point. But I couldn't help but express my surprise, amazement and anger that a sensible decision, which would have saved millions of Londoners then and now a gigantic amount of hassle, was blocked purely to prevent a career from becoming obsolete.

He completely agreed with me.

I had expected to hear my Grandad standing up for the worker against the establishment. I had expected to hear why their families needed them to stay in a job, regardless of whether that job was necessary. But I should have known better. My Grandad's iron will and ideological certainty wasn't one which clouded his judgement - it enabled him to make clear and sensible decisions on what he knew in his heart to be right. Of course he would stand up for the working man - if not him, then who? But to maintain a career artificially, creating more hassle purely for the sake of avoiding the hassle of asking workers to retrain, to find a career that was relevant in the modern world, to him that was clearly wrong.

And so, with the plight of London's commuters in mind, I implore someone, anyone, to do the same calculations my Grandad saw in the 1970s. Take into account the automation that can be achieved in the 21st Century, the technological advancements, the fact that Paris don't even use drivers any more. Even take into account the way that tickets are now often bought from automated machines - with government cuts and the need for continued investment in the infrastructure, I acknowledge that to make the network free to use is unlikely today.

But please, this time, if the calculations show that a job is obsolete, let's do something about it. Yes we need jobs. We need people doing work that is relevant, useful and advantageous to the economy. But not just any jobs, not jobs for the sake of having jobs, or because Bob Crow, with his ideological blinkers and fat pay check says so. We need real jobs, not artificial ones.

I know my Grandad would agree.