Train passengers face another week of chaos on Britain’s railways as the series of bitter and long-running industrial disputes drags into the new year and looks set to disrupt the return to work after the Christmas holidays.
Rail users have been warned to “only travel if it is absolutely necessary” between Tuesday and Saturday, with large parts of the network shut down and skeleton services expected to operate elsewhere.
About 40,000 RMT members will stage walkouts on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, in a dispute over pay, job security and changes to working practices. Train drivers represented by the Aslef union will walk out on Thursday in a row over pay, completing five days of travel misery for passengers.
The week of railway disruption comes as the government faces a growing wave of industrial unrest in the public sector, with unions pushing for significant pay increases to offset the rising cost of living.
Control room staff and traffic officers will be joined by driving instructors in walking out this week as the PCS, the civil servants’ union, stages strikes at National Highways and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. Nurses and ambulance workers are also set for more industrial action later this month.
The railway network has been hit by the most widespread strikes so far this winter. This week is set to round off nearly a month of continuous disruption owing to a series of walkouts by the RMT throughout December along with an overtime ban on other days, which led to reduced services on many lines.
The RMT, the UK’s largest transport union, is locked in two separate disputes with 14 train operating companies and infrastructure provider Network Rail.
On Monday, Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, accused the government of blocking attempts by his union to reach a deal with employers. “There is an unprecedented level of ministerial interference [in this dispute], which is hamstringing rail employers from being able to negotiate a package of measures with us, so we can settle this dispute.”
He told the BBC there had been no formal talks with management since mid-December. “It has been radio silence.”
Last month, the Financial Times reported that ministers had prevented the industry from offering unions higher pay deals and added tough new conditions at the last minute.
The government, which controls the purse strings of an industry that is now in effect fully renationalised, called on the unions to make concessions.
“Passengers have rightly had enough of rail strikes and want the disruption to end,” it said. “The government has demonstrated it is being reasonable and stands ready to facilitate a resolution to rail disputes. It’s time the unions came to the table and played their part as well.”
Ministers have argued that the railways face a financial crisis following the pandemic and subsequent collapse in commuter revenue, and must embrace reform and modernisation.
There is some optimism within the industry that a deal to end the Network Rail dispute may be possible when talks are expected to resume in the coming weeks.
In December the RMT rejected a 9 per cent pay rise over two years, with more for lower-paid staff, which was tied to big changes to working practices. The union has since been left isolated, after the TSSA and Unite unions accepted similar deals.
Network Rail bosses have also been buoyed by signs that the strikes are beginning to crack as staff lose money, and estimate that about 2,000 people went to work on one strike day in December. The RMT has said support for strikes remains high among its members.
The dispute with the train operating companies looks harder to resolve. The industry has offered an 8 per cent rise, tied to workplace reforms that the RMT has said it cannot accept.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe