Rail strikes ended (for now): what’s next?

Rail passengers across the UK experience their first day off of industrial action in weeks. The last of five days of strikes ended in the early hours of Sunday morning, the first time nationwide with full services.

The overtime ban by the RMT union, which has caused thousands of train cancellations over the past few weeks, has come to an end. But the long and bitter dispute drags on. Here are the key questions and answers.

Has everything gone back to normal?

It comes to that. The South Western Railway network is restored to and from London Waterloo, the country’s busiest station. Bunting is at Cobham & Stoke D’Abernon, where the first train to this leafy part of Surrey for four weeks arrived shortly before 9am on Sunday. A combination of strikes and an overtime ban by the RMT union prompted the train operator to close spur lines and dozens of stations.

Elsewhere, it took longer to resume normal service.

On the TransPennine Express, dozens of trains on a key link between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York have been canceled or reduced. The railway company blames the “continuing impact of higher than normal levels of morbidity and a range of other issues, including training backlogs, as a direct result of Covid.”

The Midland Chiltern Railways network, which closed a month ago, only reopened at the start of the working week. The company warned commuters: “Current signs indicate that there may be a small number of short notice cancellations on Monday, January 9, with some trains likely to consist of fewer cars than normally planned.”

More broadly, the causes of the disruptions that have plagued rail travel for the last 200 days are far from determined.

Remind us of the state of affairs?

There are three main disputes on the railway.

Network Rail, supplier of track, signals and custodian of the 20 busiest stations, against the RMT union.

Over a dozen railway operators contracted by the government to provide services against the RMT union. Rail companies are represented in the negotiations by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), but any proposals must be signed by ministers.

Fifteen railway carriers, similarly service providers for the government represented by RDG, against the train drivers’ union Aslef.

What is the state of negotiations?

Network Rail made a “last and final” offer to the RMT late last year of 5 per cent in 2022, 4 per cent this year, plus an increase for the lowest paid and a generous fare discount scheme for employees and their families.

The proposal was put to a referendum by union members recommending it be rejected – which 52 per cent of eligible voters duly did. Only 30 percent of eligible voters approved the deal. The others abstained.

The RMT said: “It is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that their proposals are unacceptable to members.”

In the other two disputes, the railway undertakings offered a 4% wage increase each year last and this year – subject to radical changes in the way they work. RMT management immediately rejected the proposal and called for more strikes.

RDG submitted an offer to the Aslef drivers’ union only on Friday afternoon. Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan says he first heard of the offer when journalists started calling him.

While there has been no official response, Aslef members are generally furious – taking to social media to lament the required changes to a stream of sometimes swearing-filled comments.

Where are we going from here?

On Monday, ministers are to hold talks with the main railway unions – RMT and Aslef. Talks with ministers so far have been described as cordial and constructive. but nothing concrete came out.

It seems likely that the dispute will fragment. Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines has said he expects a settlement this month with RMT – whose members working for Network Rail have been on strike for 20 of the last 200 days and each lost pay reaching thousands of pounds in the process.

A Network Rail single employer deal would be much easier to finalize than the many local agreements that are required to settle disputes between train operators. Had Network Rail staff settled in, it would have immediately guaranteed a much better service for most rail passengers, even on strike days by rail operators.

Currently, the greatest damage during shutdowns is caused by outgoing Network Rail signals; if the entire system were open, many more trains could run.

What about disputes with railway carriers?

Sources have told me that the RMT could come to an agreement with the railway companies if the ‘driver only’ clause – introduced by ministers at the last minute – is withdrawn and the pay rise raised by a few percentage points.

But train drivers who have been on strike for six days in six months can still organize strikes. They are relatively well paid; The RDG says the average basic salary for train drivers is £60,000. They therefore lose more cash in absolute terms when they leave, but have a greater opportunity to bear these losses than lower-paid railroad workers.

What happens then?

The government appears to be prepared for further shutdowns in the belief that union determination is waning and public support for rail strikes is waning. But the government continues to distance itself from the negotiations, even though all proposals are subject to ministry approval.

Transport secretary Mark Harper said his top priority was to end the strikes – but he told Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT: “My role is to facilitate and support – not to negotiate.”

Meanwhile, Mr Lynch believes his union’s operation is part of a wider class struggle, saying: “We have to make sure that the legacy of this time is a profound change in this society.

“We will fight for what we set out to achieve and we will make anyone who stands in our way out of the way.”

Mick Whelan, leader of the train drivers, calls the railroad companies “corrupt, immoral, disgusting”.

He he tweeted about the salary offer“It seems to contain a lot of stuff that we’ve already dismissed and said the red lines are such deliberate sabotage for PR purposes that you have to wonder?”

Passengers may find themselves drawn into what looks increasingly like an ideological struggle for a while, while the need for £4,000 a minute of taxpayers’ cash on top of the usual subsidies shows no sign of diminishing.

Have more strikes been announced?

The transport white collar workers’ association (TSSA) announced a strike by its members working on the London Elizabeth Line on Thursday 12 January. The union says a strike is “highly likely” to stop the £20bn flagship line through the capital.

The strike-like action, involving orders to work under government mode to only work certain hours, take breaks and not provide protection in the event of unforeseen circumstances, will run from now until February 28.

Unions must give at least two weeks’ notice of future strikes.

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