Rail strikes over (for now): what happens next?

Rail passengers across Britain are experiencing the first day free of industrial action for weeks. The last of five days of strikes ended in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The RMT union’s overtime ban, which has caused thousands of train cancellations in the past few weeks, is over. But the long and bitter dispute drags on. These are the key questions and answers.

Is everything back to normal on the railways?

It’s getting there. To and from London Waterloo, the nation’s busiest station, the South Western Railway network is restored (except where Sunday engineering work makes it difficult. The bunting is out in Cobham & Stoke D’Abernon, where the first train in that leafy part of Surrey for four weeks appeared shortly before 9am. A combination of strikes and an overtime ban by the RMT union has led the train operator to close down branch lines and stations.

Elsewhere normal service will not be resumed immediately. Chiltern Railways’ Midland network, which closed down a month ago, does not reopen until Monday 9 January. On TransPennine Express, a number of Manchester-Leeds-York trains as well as some services between Doncaster and Cleethorpes have been axed. The train firm blames “the ongoing impact of higher-than-normal sickness levels and a number of other issues including a training backlog as a direct result of Covid.”

More widely, the causes of the disruption that has plagued rail travel for the past 200 days are far from settled.

Remind us of the state of play?

There are three basic disputes on the railway.

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

More than a dozen train operators who are contracted by the government to run services, against the RMT union. The train firms are represented in negotiations by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), but any proposals have to be signed off by ministers.

Fifteen train operators, similarly service providers for the government, against the train drivers’ union, Aslef.

What’s the state of negotiations?

Network Rail made an offer to the RMT late last year of 5 per cent for last year, 4 per cent this year, plus an uplift for the lowest paid and extremely generous ticket discount scheme for staff and their family.

The proposal was put out to a referendum of union members with a recommendation to reject – which 52 per cent of eligible voters duly did. Only 30 per cent of those eligible to vote accepted the deal. The remainder abstained. The RMT said: “It is clear beyond all doubt that their proposals are unacceptable to members.”

In the other two disputes, the train operators have offered a 4 per cent pay rise for last year and this year – contingent on radical changes to working practices. The RMT leadership threw their proposal out immediately and called further strikes.

The RDG made an offer to the drivers’ union, Aslef, only on Friday afternoon. The Aslef general secretary, Mick Whelan, says the first he heard about the offer was when journalists started calling about it. While there’s been no official response, Aslef members are generally livid. I have never seen such expletive-laden responses to companies who are seeking to give staff a bit more money – though well short of inflation, and with many strings attached.

Where do we go from here?

The dispute gets fragmented. The boss of Network Rail has said he expects a settlement this month with the RMT, whose members have been on strike for 20 of the past 200 days and have each lost pay running into thousands of pounds in the process.

A single-employer Network Rail deal would be much easier to finalise than the multiple local agreements that are required to settle the train operators’ disputes. If Network Rail staff took no further industrial action, it would instantly guarantee a much better service for most rail passengers, even on strike days involving train operators.

At present the greatest harm during stoppages is caused by Network Rail signallers walking out; if the whole system was open, then many more trains could run.

What about the disputes with train operators?

Sources have told me that the RMT could settle with the rail companies if the “Driver Only Operation” clause – which was inserted by ministers at the last minute – is retracted and the pay increase upped by a couple of percentage points.

But the train drivers, who have been on strike for six days in six months, could continue to stage walk-outs. They are relatively well paid; the RDG says train drivers’ average basic salary is £60,000. Therefore they lose more cash in absolute terms when they walk out, but are in a stronger position to sustain those losses than less well-paid rail workers.

What happens next?

The rail union bosses are meeting the prime minister. Previous talks with ministers have been described as cordial and constructive. but nothing substantive has resulted.

The government appears to be prepared to sustain more stoppages in the belief that the unions’ resolve is weakening and public support for rail strikes is ebbing. It is also keen to keep an apparent distance from the talks, even though all proposals are subject to ministerial approval.

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

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

“We’re going to fight for what we’re going to achieve, and we’re going to make anyone who stands in the way get out of the way.”

Mick Whelan, the train drivers’ leader, calls the Rail Delivery Group negotiators “corrupt, immoral, disgusting”.

He tweeted about the pay offer: “It seems to contain many things we have already rejected and said were red lines so deliberate sabotage for PR purposes you have to wonder?”

Passengers can expect to be caught up in what is looking increasingly like an ideological struggle for some time to come, while the need for £4,000 per minute of taxpayers’ cash on top of the usual subsidies shows no sign of reducing.

Have any more strikes been called?

The white-collar Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) has called a strike of its members working on London’s Elizabeth Line on Thursday 12 January. The union says the walkout is “highly likely” to bring the flagship £20bn line through the capital to a halt.

Action short of a strike, comprising a work-to-rule instruction to work only contracted hours, take breaks and not provide contingency cover will run from then through to 28 February.

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

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