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Rail strikes have disrupted the country for 15 months – what can break the deadlock?

Exclusive: Employers, ministers and unions propose fresh thinking

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 25 September 2023 06:10 BST
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No-go zone: London Euston station on the day of an Aslef train drivers’ strike in September 2023
No-go zone: London Euston station on the day of an Aslef train drivers’ strike in September 2023 (Simon Calder)

The first national rail strikes since the 1980s began 15 months ago.

The initial walk-out, by members of the RMT union, was on 21 June 2022. The following month, train drivers belonging to Aslef began a separate series of stoppages.

Since then, around half a million trains have been cancelled and more than 100 million journeys scuppered by strikes and overtime bans.

With no apparent progress in negotiations, further industrial action is planned from 30 September – when Aslef members will walk out for the 13th time.

On the employers’ side: 14 English train operators contracted by the government to run services, represented by the Rail Delivery Group. Any eventual solution must be signed off by ministers.

The great divide is this: both unions demand no-strings increases that take into account the high level of inflation. They say they are prepared to discuss reforms, but these must be negotiated separately – with any changes accompanied by commensurate pay boosts.

Train operators and ministers insist modernisation is essential following the collapse of rail revenue. They say taxpayers are pumping an extra £10 million per day into keeping the railways running, on top of the usual billions in annual subsidies. The only way to award even a modest increase, the employers’ side maintains, is to fund it from efficiency savings.

What’s on offer?

No apparent progress has been made since April, when the Rail Delivery Group made offers that were roundly rejected by the unions.

Offer to RMT: 5 per cent increase for year one, payable once the RMT holds a referendum endorsing the deal. The union and its members would need to sign up to the principle of reform and end the national dispute.

Stage two: Union negotiates with individual train operating Companies (TOCs) to agree on necessary changes, with a 4 per cent pay increase would be paid for year two.

Offer to Aslef: Pay rise over two years of around 8 per cent “which would take average driver salaries from £60,000 to £65,000 for a four-day week”.

The first award is is contingent on a wide range of changes, including accelerating driver training and learning of new routes. Year two would be negotiated individually with train operators, but with the presumption that Sunday (nearly) becomes part of the working week. The exact wording: “Drivers who are rostered to work a Sunday shift are contractually committed to doing so, unless alternative cover can be found.”

Bridging the gap

In an attempt to bridge the divide, The Independent sought fresh thinking from the parties to the dispute – starting with the train operators,

Rail Delivery Group

“We want to resolve this dispute and are acutely aware of the damaging impact it’s having on our passengers, our people and the long-term sustainability of the industry itself.

“We have recently had constructive discussions with the RMT and agree that ultimately, the route through this is dispute is for negotiations to be moved to local, rather than national level discussions. There remain some areas of important detail that need to be resolved for that to happen, however we continue to engage constructively with the RMT to find a solution.

“Our offer to Aslef which would take average driver salaries from £60–65,000 for a four-day week remains on the table, and we are always open to constructive dialogue. However, at a time when industry is losing £10m a day post Covid, its leadership must recognise the need to make changes to how the industry is run, to both fund any and crucially, so we can give our passengers more reliable train services, particularly on Sundays.”

Department for Transport

“The transport secretary and rail minister have resolved the disputes with Unite, TSSA and RMT members working for Network Rail. They’ve also facilitated fair and reasonable offers that would take Aslef’s train driver salaries from an average of £60,000 to £65,000 a year.

“The government has done all it can to end this dispute, ensuring rail workers received fair pay offers to deliver the vital reforms our railway needs. It’s now firmly in the hands of union leaders to do the right thing and let their members have a vote on these offers.”

RMT

Mick Lynch, general secretary, has written to the Rail Delivery Group with a set of proposals including backdating a pay rise for 2022–23, new negotiations (including on changing working arrangements) for 2023–24 to start on 1 December 2023; a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies; and “workforce reform” to be agreed with individual train operators.

The RMT boss says: ”In using the above staged programme, I believe that we can bring clarity to everyone in the industry, that they will receive a pay increment for the previous year 2022–23, with a guarantee of employment going forward, and that all of the change agenda that the companies wish to propose will be known in full and then addressed appropriately through the respective machineries in each of the companies.”

The RMT is also alarmed at proposals to close almost all rail ticket offices, and says: “Greedy rail privateers should have no place on our railways and that’s why the whole network must be brought into public ownership as a matter of urgency, in the best interests of passengers and railway workers.”

Aslef

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, told The Independent: “It’s basically a land grab for terms and conditions right across the board for a 20 per cent pay cut.”

“When we talked to the companies, they didn’t really know what they wanted. But then they wanted everything for nothing.”

Aslef believes the way forward is for the Rail Delivery Group to offer a basic, no-strings of increase of 8 or 9 per cent and then to negotiate individually with train operators on terms and conditions. Each TOC has its own deal with drivers – one operator, Northern, has three separate contracts – and changes will effectively be sold in return for a percentage consolidated into drivers’ salaries.

What happens next?

It seems clear that the RMT union and Rail Delivery Group are moving closer. The Independent understands that informal talks have been taking place over the past two weeks. With no further strikes called by the RMT, it appears that both sides seeking a deal that Mick Lynch can sell to his National Executive and put to members in a ballot.

But there are no signs of movement in the Aslef dispute. According to Mick Whelan, boss of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, the dispute has a political dimension – and may possibly not be over until there is a change of government.

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