Passengers face another week of barely functioning train services as railway staff start five consecutive days of strikes, amid claims that rail companies are “in despair” over the government’s handling of the pay dispute.
RMT members at Network Rail and 14 train operators will go on strike for two 48-hour stoppages starting on Tuesday and then Friday this week, while train drivers in the Aslef union will also strike this week, wiping out many services on Thursday.
Passengers have been urged to attempt to travel only if necessary. The strikes will be the culmination of four weeks of industrial action that have severely disrupted rail services over the festive period, including an overtime ban ending later on Tuesday.
Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union, said he believed a deal could be reached but that ministers had been absent since a meeting in mid-December.
Speaking on the BBC Today programme on Monday, Lynch said there had been “radio silence” since the last talks before Christmas.
He said: “We’ve outlined what we need to make progress; these are experienced people we’re dealing with, but the government simply will not give a mandate to the employers, Network Rail and the train operators that will allow this deal to be resolved.
“They’re sitting on their hands and are noted by their absence from this scene. They keep saying that they’re facilitating a deal. And I think it’s absolutely the opposite to that.”
Lynch added: “The executives who run the industry day on day are in despair at what the government is making them say in these talks.”
The RMT leader said the union was looking for a settlement, with “sensible proposals”, but said the government was “out of their depth”.
Lynch said policy was behind problems on the railway. He said: “They’ve given us a structure that simply doesn’t work: abandoned franchising, they’ve abandoned their latest Greater British Rail [sic]… they stumble from one day to another and all they want to do is bash the unions.”
He said that pay was only part of the dispute: “This is about the way our members are deployed, their work-life balance – if we don’t defend those conditions we will end up like all the gig economy workers, all the low-paid and vulnerable people in our society.”
The Department for Transport rejected Lynch’s claims, and said the rail minister had remained in regular contact with all parties. It said it remained committed to rail reform, and had taken significant steps to enable a deal.
A DfT spokesperson said: “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.”
Rail passengers have been warned to expect significant disruption for the rest of the week, with only about 20% of national rail services expected to run on RMT strike days, mostly during the hours of 7.30am to 6.30pm.
Network Rail has advised people to check online for updates on when services will run.
The Aslef strike on Thursday will mean even fewer trains running, with no services at all across most of the 15 operators where drivers are going on strike.
Daniel Mann, the 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.
“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 Aslef general secretary, Mick Whelan, said the union was “in it for the long haul”, after no pay increases for some drivers in three years at a time of high inflation.