What’s the dispute over Britain’s railways and could the strikes be the biggest in modern history? | Railway industry

As the biggest rail union, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), votes its members against a strike that could cripple the railways, we explain what the dispute is about – and if the government can stop this.

Will there really be strikes on the railways?

The RMT has voted around 40,000 members across Network Rail and 16 rail operating companies for industrial action over pay and cuts. Voting ends on Tuesday evening (bar in Scotland) and the results should be announced on Wednesday morning.

The RMT must give notice, so any strikes will begin at the end of June. All the different rail companies are separate trading units, with Network Rail also split into operations and maintenance. If operations – mainly flagmen – vote to strike, the railroad could be shut down. If Aslef ends up getting out of the drivers, the same. Otherwise, the immediate impact could be limited.

So why is the RMT considering a strike?

Wages have been frozen across much of rail since 2020 and inflation has soared. The government told the railway to cut its costs by about 10%. Network Rail, the public company that runs the infrastructure, estimates it can save more than £100m a year through workplace reform. This includes changing its maintenance regime to a “risk-based” assessment and using more technology, rather than having so many boots in the field.

Although no formal proposal has been tabled, unions believe that rail operating companies will close ticket offices and wage offers will be well below inflation. They say staff who have been hailed as essential frontline workers during the pandemic should not now lose their jobs or take effective pay cuts.

Why are cuts necessary?

Rail finances have been disrupted by the pandemic and the government is now responsible for the losses. Prior to 2020, the industry received around £4 billion in annual taxpayer subsidies; the Treasury has accumulated around £15bn more in total since Covid hit. Passenger numbers have returned to 80% of pre-Covid levels, but in key areas – the lucrative commuter networks to London, which once brought in guaranteed season ticket revenue – they are significantly lower.

A member of Network Rail staff clears ticket barriers at Waterloo station in London.
A member of Network Rail staff clears ticket barriers at Waterloo station in London. Photography: Andy Rain/EPA

Is this the new normal?

Who knows? It can be said that the reduction of services will accelerate the decline. But subsidizing trains at such a cost seems untenable. Even before the pandemic, a drop in season ticket sales suggested that the trips of yesteryear may be declining. The spread of remote and part-time work has posed a big challenge: given the high rush-hour fares, the occasional train trip can seem more prohibitive than the staggered cost of annual subscriptions.

What does the government intend to do?

Despite Treasury cuts, Downing Street has generally avoided a fight. But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has suggested laws could be introduced to ensure “minimum levels of service”, as outlined in the Tory manifesto. Such an inflammatory decision – effectively denying the right to strike – is unlikely to become a reality and, in the short term, has rallied wider trade union opposition.

Are other railway unions on strike?

Aslef, who is currently in a dispute with ScotRail but not elsewhere in the UK, has warned that he will not tolerate another pay freeze for the train drivers he represents. The TSSA said it was considering a ballot. But only the RMT has gone further, in a move the rail industry has called premature.

Network Rail staff work on the tracks at a closed Paddington station in London
Network Rail is divided into operations and maintenance staff. Photography: Andy Rain/EPA

Are railway staff well paid?

Yes, many are well paid by national standards – but most station or maintenance staff earn nothing like the train conductors whose salaries are often quoted in the press. Drivers (normally represented by Aslef) can earn around £63,000 on the Tube and more on the National Railway, where they have thrived since privatization – largely because of the fragmented market it has created for their work .

The real sauce is in the sky-high salaries paid to senior executives on rail projects such as HS2, while rail company directors can earn far more than the Prime Minister – and even the director of passenger rail services at the Department for Transport receives a salary that far. outshines most officials above him.

So, will the railroad strikes really be the biggest in modern history?

Technically, maybe – at least if you define modern as post-Thatcher. A national flagmen’s strike brought trains to an intermittent halt across the country in 1994, and other national stoppages have occurred under British Rail – but since privatization and more draconian labor laws the disputes are largely regional . The numbers and the geographical spread, with so many companies and Network Rail involved, means it’s big.

Factor in parallel strikes over pay and job cuts on the London Underground, and there could be significant disruption at times across Britain this year. But with so many people able to work flexibly or from home, it might not hit commuters in the same way as, say, the 2016-17 Southern Railroad strikes.

Will he empty the shelves?

Doubtful – although this may provide political cover for the supply chain disruption already seen since Covid and Brexit. Only an extended single stop would stop freight. Contingency plans, with supervisors and managers written out, would allow certain trains to run at certain times of the day.

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