The national rail dispute will reach a critical juncture on Monday with the results of ballots for industrial action by drivers at eight train companies, as talks resume with the biggest rail union to head off more strikes.
The votes, called by Aslef, could lead to action with even more impact than during last month’s strikes by 40,000 RMT workers – when the absence in particular of signallers stopped most services in the UK – particularly if it coincides with action by Network Rail managers, whose ballot by the TSSA (Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association) will also be announced on Monday.
A strike by Aslef drivers would halt services at the affected train companies – Chiltern, GWR, LNER, London Overground, Northern, Southeastern, TransPennine and West Midlands – while action by the smaller TSSA union could deprive the rail network of contingency staff to keep services running during a wider strike at Network Rail.
The TSSA union has discussed timing action to coincide with the Commonwealth Games at the end of July, although no firm dates have been announced.
Talks will resume on Monday between train companies, Network Rail and the RMT, which paused discussions last week for its annual general meeting, in which the union’s leader, Mick Lynch, vowed to keep up “the fight of our generation”.
Hopes of a breakthrough appear scant unless the government agrees rail workers should be allowed an increase of more than 2%. The general secretary of Aslef, Mick Whelan, said train companies were having below-inflation offers dictated by their contracts with the Department for Transport.
“Originally they weren’t saying it was the government. Now they’re being honest and saying the government has limited them to 2%,” he said.
With a mandate to strike already voted for at three operators, where action has started – Greater Anglia, Hull Trains and London Trams – and three more ballots to come in a fortnight, Aslef could potentially strike across 14 train companies. If that happens simultaneously, much of the network will grind to a halt.
Whelan said: “There’s no reason why we’d call them all out together, but at some point it could coalesce.”
Strike days would not be scheduled to coincide with action by other unions, partly because of Thatcher-era union laws, he said, but could follow on similar dates: “If we’re aware some people might strike on a Tuesday, we might strike on a Wednesday for maximum effect.”
Whelan said cuts that were likely to be imposed on the railways, such as closing ticket offices or making more trains run without guards, would affect staff and passenger safety as well as pay.
“The companies are trying to tell train drivers they have to take a pay cut – a 2% pay rise when inflation is running at 11% – so they can pay their senior managers more and move tens of millions of pounds in profits abroad as dividends for shareholders.”
He said the private rolling stock companies, or “roscos”, were likewise still making huge profits: “No one wants to talk about the £220m the roscos were making or the billions they’ve taken out. They want to attack staff wages.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “The government is committed to the modernisation of railways and is getting on with delivering a better service for all.
“Unions know full well that negotiations over pay and working practices don’t happen with the government – they happen with the employers of the people they represent.
“Unions should stop pointing the blame, and get around the table with employers to agree a deal that is fair for staff, passengers and taxpayers.”
The RMT announced last week that staff at the biggest train company, GTR, which includes Southern and Thameslink, now had a mandate to strike, after falling short of the threshold of votes cast in an initial ballot.
The TSSA is also expecting the results of strike votes at four train operators this week: from Southeastern on Monday, and three others on Wednesday – Greater Anglia, GWR and TransPennine.