Rail strikes: Unions say solution is ‘further away’ than ever

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London station quiet during October rail strike 2022Getty Images

A solution to the labour dispute disrupting the UK’s rail services is no closer, according to union leaders.

Mick Whelan, leader of train drivers’ union Aslef, said: “We’re further away than we started.”

He was giving evidence to MPs on parliament’s transport select committee, alongside leaders of the other unions representing rail workers.

Last week industrial action led to widespread cancellations, but currently no further strikes are scheduled.

When asked by MPs how close a resolution was on a scale of one to 10, Mr Whelan said: “I think you can include zero.”

On Friday rail companies made their first offer to drivers, an 8% pay rise spread over two years.

But Mr Whelan said he could not recommend “any one element of it”, adding it could “destroy the ability to go back to talks in future”.

The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef), representing train drivers, has previously said it was “chasing a pay rise that at least puts a dent” in the impact from rising prices, after inflation rose above 10%.

Unions representing workers other than drivers, including the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) and the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, are also campaigning for better pay and conditions for their members.

Frank Ward, interim general secretary of the TSSA, told the committee hearing he could not disagree with Mr Whelan’s statement.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, the largest rail union, said the prospects of a deal depended on discussions, and “until we get an agreement we’re not close to it”.

He said “we’re a long way on pay”, highlighting that offers made so far were well below inflation. Last year the RMT rejected rail companies’ offer of 8% over two years.

Mr Lynch also said conditions attached to the offer from train companies – which included ticket office closures and the expansion of driver only trains, which the RMT says threatens the role of guards – involved “such profound changes that they’ll be very difficult for any union to accept”.

Steve Montgomery, chair of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train companies, said the move to have drivers operating train doors was aimed at improving punctuality and reliability, and not about removing other staff altogether. There would be a second person on board “on a lot of occasions” he said.

Mr Montgomery told MPs he believed there was an opportunity to “try and move forward” with the RMT.

“I think we’re within reasonable areas of where I think we can get a deal. But we have to work through it with them,” he said.

Mr Montgomery confirmed there would be further talks on Thursday with both the RMT and TSSA.

He acknowledged the Aslef dispute was further behind.

“We need to do more work with [Aslef] and try and get back round the table,” he said.

The industry was not trying to cut wages or increase workers’ hours, Mr Montgomery said. Instead it wanted to improve productivity, making the railway more cost effective, he said.

Tim Shoveller, chief negotiator for Network Rail, also struck an optimistic tone, rating his organisation’s closeness of a deal with the RMT as seven out of 10.

In December Network Rail, which owns and operates the UK’s rail infrastructure, offered to raise pay for its staff by around 9% over two years, but with changes to working conditions attached.

Mr Shoveller said only a couple of thousand more RMT members at Network Rail would need to vote in favour of the deal that had been offered, for it to meet the threshold for acceptance.