The first national rail strikes since the 1980s began in June 2021. Since then, members of the main rail union, the RMT, have walked out on dozens of occasions. The dispute is with the 14 train operators who are contracted by the government to run rail services, mainly in England, which run the key intercity and commuter services.
The following month the RMT were joined by the train drivers’ union, Aslef, which has staged 14 days of strikes as well as seven stretches of bans on rest-day working.
The unions’ aim: to achieve no-strings pay rises by wrecking the journeys of millions of passengers each time they walk out.
The train operators – represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), and directed by the government – have made several proposals, but until now none has been deemed good enough to put to the membership of either union.
A first glimmer of hope has now emerged, with the RMT for the first time putting an offer to its members working for train operators. The online referendum concludes on 30 November. So could it be all over by Christmas? These are the key questions and answers.
Why and when did the industrial action start?
Both rail unions demand increases that take into account the high level of inflation without conditions attached. They say they are prepared to discuss reforms, but these must be negotiated separately. They expect any changes to working practices to be accompanied by commensurate pay boosts in addition to the normal annual increases.
But the employers maintain the only way they can afford even a modest increase is to fund it out of efficiency savings. Train operators and ministers insist modernisation is essential following the collapse of rail revenue.
Much of the “bedrock” of season ticket sales has vanished since the Covid pandemic. Taxpayers are currently bankrolling the rail industry to the tune of £4,000 per minute on top of the usual subsidy of £12,300 per minute.
After months of talks, the RMT first national rail strikes for 33 years began on 21 June 2022. For 17 months, national rail strikes and other forms of industrial action have scuppered the travel plans of millions of train passengers. Stoppages have been called frequently, causing massive disruption and making advance travel planning difficult.
Which train operators are involved in the national disputes?
The RMT and Aslef strikes involve the 14 rail firms in England contracted by the Department for Transport. They include the leading intercity operators:
- Avanti West Coast
- East Midlands Railway
- Great Western Railway
- TransPennine Express
London commuter operators:
- Greater Anglia
- GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)
- South Western Railway (including the Island Line on the Isle of Wight)
Operators focusing on the Midlands and north of England:
- Chiltern Railways
- Northern Trains
- West Midlands Railway
ScotRail and Transport for Wales are not involved.
What has changed?
As the industrial action has continued, train operators have been adding more services on RMT strike days – reducing the impact of walk-outs. In contrast, strikes by the train drivers’ union, Aslef, continue to bring much of the rail network to a halt.
Previous offers to the RMT have been rejected out of hand by the union’s executive committee, without going to a vote. But after weeks of negotiations, the two sides have now come up with a deal that can be put to members.
The offer covers only the year to April 2023. It involves a no-strings increase of 5 per cent or an increment of £1,750, whichever is higher. This is designed to provide uplift for lower-paid workers on less than £35,000. For someone earning £25,000, it will be a 7 per cent rise.
If accepted in the referendum, members will collect a year’s worth of back pay in time for Christmas. Negotiations on future pay and conditions – including for the current year – will begin in February 2024 with no immediate threat of strikes.
What could possibly go wrong?
The RMT has stopped short of recommending the offer. The general secretary, Mick Lynch, told BBC Today: ““We’re not ecstatic about this deal. It’s a very modest pay rise. It doesn’t match the rate of inflation.
“But nevertheless we are putting it to members because the conditions that we were supposed to adopt, that the government was trying to force on us, such as such as the closure of all the ticket offices, driver-only operation [of trains], extended working hours and lots of other stuff have been removed.
“It could go either way. If our members reject this, we will continue with a campaign and that will include unfortunately some industrial action.”
Last month RMT members voted 90:10 in favour of more industrial action, on a turn out of 64 per cent.
The absence of a recommendation to accept – possibly a reflection on tensions within the RMT – may see the offer rejected. But union members have lost thousands of pounds in wages by walking out. They have not had a pay rise for a year and a half, and may well welcome a large tranche of back pay. So the likelihood is that they will accept.
What do the employers and ministers say?
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group said a vote to accept would create “a pause and respite from industrial action over the Christmas period and into spring next year”.
There would be talks “aimed at addressing the companies’ proposals on the changing needs and expectations of passengers as well as unlocking further increases for staff”.
The aim: “To secure a sustainable, long-term future for the railway and all those who work on it.”
A Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson said: “We welcome the RMT putting this fair and reasonable offer to its members in a referendum, marking a positive step towards resolving this dispute.
“The Rail Delivery Group’s offer guarantees no compulsory redundancies and a fair pay rise, while ensuring we can take forward much-needed reform to secure the future of our railways.
“We hope RMT members will recognise the benefits, accept this offer and put an end to the RMT’s industrial action.”
So all over by Christmas?
Far from it. The parallel dispute involving Aslef continues with the two sides as far apart as ever. The train drivers’ union last staged a national strike on 4 October. While none are expected in November, it seems likely that further walk-outs will be called in the run-up to Christmas and possibly in the New Year.
Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, told The Independent that he believes a change of government may be necessary to bring industrial peace.
“This is a political dispute caused by the government,” he said. “If it had been an industrial dispute left solely to the employers and the unions, I think it would have been resolved by now.”
He called the changes stipulated as part of the deal “basically a land grab for terms and conditions right across the board for a 20 per cent pay cut.”
Mr Whelan said: “That isn’t going to happen. This [industrial action] is going to go on until the government give us a solution.”