Another week of rail misery beckons for British passengers from Friday, with that all-too-familiar disruption to services around the country: the latest wave in a national pay dispute in which the first strikes were announced 18 months ago.
A nine-day overtime ban announced by Aslef for train drivers will shred timetables, while a concurrent series of rolling 24-hour strikes will halt all trains at different operators daily as December arrives.
But before this advent calendar of industrial action unfolds, a Christmas truce may be sealed on one front. Members of rail’s biggest union, the RMT, are voting in an electronic referendum on a deal that, while far from settling the whole row, would guarantee a partial pay rise, some job security – and no strikes until April.
It’s by no means certain that the proposal will be ratified when the vote closes on Thursday – the union’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, has not publicly recommended which way members should vote – but hopes are high after a similar e-ballot last year at Network Rail saw a deal approved.
This half-deal would see a 5% pay rise for staff backdated to 2022, along with a chance to restart talks on working reforms and a further pay rise – welcome relief for passengers whose last Christmas was marked by four weeks of intermittent strikes, brought, according to the tabloid headline writers, by “Mick Grinch”.
The Mick in the line of fire now will be Aslef’s Mick Whelan, whose smaller union has traditionally been slower to strike, but has sufficient clout to stop trains entirely. While informal talks had been continuing between the RMT and the operators’ representative body, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), seven months have elapsed without contact between the RDG and Aslef, according to Whelan.
The backtracking over ticket office closures appears to have allowed movement on the RMT side, with the union claiming partial victory and train operators and ministers dodging a wildly unpopular cost-saving measure while easing fears of imminent widespread redundancies.
The path to progress for drivers is less obvious. At the moment, the two sides disagree on whether an offer even exists: there is a bizarre Schrödinger’s cat of a deal that the RDG and ministers insist is live on the table, and Aslef say is logically dead, because they have rejected it.
The offer would see average salaries rise from £60,000 to £65,000 on a four-day week; with overtime, some at the better-paid long-distance companies could touch six figures.
Train drivers are handsomely paid by the standards of many British workers, if not by the standards of the train bosses or ministers who decry their wages, and can perhaps hold out longer than others. The repeated overwhelming votes for an extended strike mandate suggest many of them still want more from what would be a first pay rise since 2019.
Aslef will not expect any movement from companies contracted in rigorous detail to the Department for Transport, or the ministers holding the purse strings. With the government now letting other big issues – not least the promised Great British Railways reform programme – trundle into an uncertain future, the prospect of a change in stance on drivers’ pay looks slim. Many in the unions believe only an election will now shift the dial, with strikes bearing little fruit – a standoff that could frustrate passengers for some time to come.