Strikes on the railways will continue until the Government stops “blocking” a deal to resolve a long-running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions, a union leader has warned.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), said there was an “unprecedented level of ministerial interference” preventing a settlement.
The Government has denied claims by unions that it is now the main stumbling block to ending the bitter dispute.
A fresh wave of strikes this week will cause travel chaos as RMT members and drivers in Aslef stage walkouts.
Around 40,000 RMT members on Network Rail and 14 train operating companies will take action on January 3, 4, 6 and 7, shutting down most rail services across the country.
Both Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group are being directly blocked by Government ministers from producing an acceptable proposal on job security, pay and working conditions— RMT statement
A one-day strike on Thursday by drivers will cripple services.
Passengers have been urged to only travel if necessary.
The RMT said that despite its best efforts over the Christmas period, rail employers have not arranged any formal negotiations to resolve the dispute.
A statement said: “Both Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group are being directly blocked by Government ministers from producing an acceptable proposal on job security, pay and working conditions.
“RMT remains available around the clock for talks so all parties can come to a negotiated settlement.”
The RMT said the position was in stark contrast to other areas of the railway where the Department for Transport does not have a mandate.
The union said it has secured deals with Scotrail, Transport for Wales, contracts on Eurostar and areas where the railway is under the control of metro mayors.
General secretary Mr Lynch said: “The Government is blocking the union’s attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the rail employers.
“We have worked with the rail industry to reach successful negotiated settlements ever since privatisation in 1993 and we have achieved deals across the network in 2021 and 2022 where the DfT has no involvement.
“Yet in this dispute, there is an unprecedented level of ministerial interference, which is hamstringing rail employers from being able to negotiate a package of measures with us, so we can settle this dispute.
“We will continue our industrial action campaign while we work towards a negotiated resolution.”
Passengers, including those returning to work after the festive break, were warned to expect “significant disruption” as only a limited number of trains will run.
The advice was only to travel if absolutely necessary, allow extra time and check when first and last trains will depart.
There may also be disruption to services on Sunday January 8 as workers return to their duties.
On RMT strike days, around half of the network will shut down, with only about 20% of normal services running.
Trains that do run will start later and finish much earlier than usual – with services typically running between 7.30am and 6.30pm on the day of the strike.
The train drivers’ strike on Thursday will affect 15 operators and will result in even fewer services running, with some companies running “very significantly reduced” timetables.
Daniel Mann, director of industry operations at the Rail Delivery Group, said: “No-one wants to see these strikes go ahead and we can only apologise to passengers and to the many businesses who will be hit by this unnecessary and damaging disruption.
“We would advise passengers to only travel if it is absolutely necessary during this period, allow extra time and check when their first and last train will depart.
“Passengers with tickets for between 3-7 January can use their ticket the day before the ticket date, or up to and including Tuesday January 10.
“This dispute will only be resolved by agreeing the long overdue reforms to working arrangements needed to put the industry on a sustainable footing, rather than unions condemning their members to losing more pay in the new year.”
The Government has demonstrated it is being reasonable and stands ready to facilitate a resolution to rail disputes. It's time the unions came to the table and played their part as well— Department for Transport spokesperson
Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan told the PA news agency that the union was “in it for the long haul”, adding: “We don’t want to go on strike but the companies have pushed us into this place.
“They have not offered our members a penny and these are people who have not had an increase since April 2019.
“That means they expect train drivers at these companies to take a real-terms pay cut – to work just as hard for considerably less – when inflation is running at north of 14%.
“The train companies say their hands have been tied by the Government while the Government – which does not employ us – says it’s up to the companies to negotiate with us.
“We are always happy to negotiate – we never refuse to sit down at the table and talk – but these companies have offered us nothing, and that is unacceptable.
“We keep coming to the table but the table is bare. Six months after we asked for a pay rise for train drivers who have, now, not had one for nearly four years, we have still not had an offer from the train companies which employ us.
“The ball is in their court. The companies, or this Tory government which stands behind them, could end this dispute now by making a serious and sensible pay offer. It is up to them.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Passengers have rightly had enough of rail strikes and want the disruption to end.
“The Government has demonstrated it is being reasonable and stands ready to facilitate a resolution to rail disputes. It’s time the unions came to the table and played their part as well.
“Inflation-matching pay increases for all public-sector workers would cost everyone more in the long-term – worsening debt, fuelling inflation, and costing every household an extra £1,000.
“Unions should step back from this strike action so we can start 2023 by ending this damaging dispute.”