Almost a year since the first national rail strike was called, another series of stoppages loom. Passengers who have been spared the usual round of disruptive bank holiday engineering works this weekend won’t be so lucky in the second half of the half-term break. Strikes by drivers and crew will more or less wipe out services on Wednesday and Saturday, shred schedules on Friday, and add a bit of scattergun disruption in between.
This time in 2022, the mere prospect of the biggest rail strike in decades was causing consternation. Now, though, the latest guaranteed upheaval has not even produced a round of talks between unions and industry – let alone ministers – to try to head off the disruption.
A gloomy stalemate has taken hold in recent months, and it is hard to see from where any imminent change will come. The one tectonic shift in a year of attrition was the settling of a 9% pay deal with staff at Network Rail in March: a moment that both deprived the biggest union, the RMT, of its greatest leverage in strikes, and also fuelled belief in government and the industry that a similar deal could be done at train operators.
Instead, a pay offer that the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) negotiators made to RMT general secretary Mick Lynch crumbled, whether due to duplicitous legalese in the written detail (as the union maintains) or because Lynch could not persuade a hardline union executive (as the train companies maintain).
The RDG and ministers have refused to budge, and demand a referendum of union members. But the deal in detail holds even less for the train operators’ staff, and union members have voted for another six months of potential strikes, starting with Friday’s.
Since then, some informal contact is understood to have taken place between industry and union – but Lynch’s recent call for a summit with government was met with a scathing RDG rejoinder that the only summit the RMT needed was “between its negotiating team and its executive committee”.
Aslef, meanwhile, may now prove even harder to reconcile. The train drivers’ union was offered even less in percentage terms by the RDG, on behalf of the English firms contracted to the Department for Transport. And unfortunately for passengers – not least those Mancunians who might have taken the Avanti intercity train to next Saturday’s FA Cup final at Wembley – an Aslef strike means no trains at all on most of the network.
The union is likewise reballoting for another six months of strikes in England – while announcing a whopping deal for drivers in Wales, a 20% rise over the next two years to £71,000, when a further guaranteed inflation-linked increase applies.
The Welsh bonanza, according to the union, delivers what the government claims to want – changes to terms and conditions, extra productivity and “modernisation”, not just gold-plated pay.
But while driver delegates in Cardiff this week for Aslef’s annual assembly will have been toasting their hosts, it’s hard to see any kind of similar resolution elsewhere.
At Westminster, ministers have freely admitted that any pay deal is now seen in the context of wider public sector pay disputes with nurses and teachers – even if the rail staff are employed by private firms. For some in government, the £1bn-plus in lost revenue is worth it to cap wider pay; for others, some suspect, in latter-day Thatcher versus the miners mode, victory over the unions is all.
The irony in the ideological dispute is that train drivers, backing renationalisation, have seen pay soar under privatisation. And in normal times, with their own money at risk, private train operators would rather shell out for drivers than face them down and lose much more in stoppages.
In Cardiff, Aslef’s president Dave Calfe told drivers to “keep the faith”, adding: “This is a political dispute, created by the Tories, and any chance of resolving it may only come from a change of government, which is still 18 months away.”
Both sides might want to be careful what they wish for. Much-needed passengers, meanwhile, might simply be careful not to rely on the train for a long time yet.