Members of the railway union RMT voted 8-1 in favor of strikes over jobs, wages and working conditions. The union says officials are discussing “a timetable for strike action from mid-June”. So what could happen? What could the effect be? And are there any other disputes?
These are the most important questions and answers.
What is this dispute about?
Britain’s largest rail union, the RMT, is threatening industrial action at both Network Rail and 15 rail operators over pay, redundancies and “a guarantee that there will be no adverse changes in labor practices”.
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said: “Members want a decent pay rise, job security and no redundancies.”
When could strikes start?
Unions must give at least 14 days’ notice of industrial action. The earliest possible date for the strike to start is June 8th, which would require an announcement on Wednesday May 25th.
The RMT says its National Executive Committee (NEC) “will meet now to discuss a timetable for strike action from mid-June”.
What was the majority for strikes?
Of the 71 percent of members who voted, 89 percent supported strike action. This represents 63 percent of the elected workforce, representing more than 25,000 workers.
The union calls it “the biggest endorsement of industrial action by railway workers since privatization.”
It appears that support for strike action was fairly uniform among Network Rail workers and rail operators.
Just remember Network Rail and the train operators…
Network Rail is the infrastructure provider. The most important roles in the daily operation of the railway are the approximately 5,000 signallers.
Train operators are allocated a part of the network to run trains on. Those whose RMT members voted to strike are:
- Avanti West Coast
- Chiltern Railway
- cross country
- East Midlands Railway
- Greater Anglia
- TransPennine Express
- West Midlands Trains (including London Northwestern Railway)
At one train operator, GTR, support was too weak to cross the threshold for a strike. GTR operates Southern, Thameslink, Gatwick Express and Great Northern services across the South East of England.
Would the RMT call a strike on rail operators and Network Rail at the same time?
It seems likely. The RMT has hailed the prospect of the largest nationwide strike since privatization in the mid-1990s
Could it be an indefinite strike?
Unlikely. The trend in railway disputes in recent years has been for a series of 24-hour strikes to be called. This limits the financial impact of striking workers but still causes widespread disruption.
There are a few exceptions, like the South Western Railway strike in December 2019, which saw RMT members taking industrial action for most of the month over the role of guards. The train operator drove about half of its normal service.
What are the effects of a 24-hour strike?
Assuming all Network Rail signalers get off, management and other staff should be able to cover about 20 percent of the network for about 12 hours a day. It is likely that only main lines will be served, mainly those departing from London:
- West Coast main line to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool
- East Coast main line to Leeds, York and Newcastle
- GWR to Bristol and Cardiff
Additionally, key commuter lines serving London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds would be kept open.
But there would be strict limits on the amount of traffic substitution beacons that could be handled. On many lines there would be no trains at all.
Even on the signaling routes, strikes by train operator workers could result in fewer than one train running every five trips.
The direct economic damage is estimated at £30m a day.
How will the passengers react?
Since the beginning of the Corona pandemic, travel behavior in rail transport has changed fundamentally, many former commuters can work from home. For them, the strikes would be irrelevant.
Key workers who need to be present at their workplace would be affected – from health workers to teachers to hospitality workers.
Some leisure and business travelers may be abandoning plans to purchase advance tickets for summer dates because of the impending disruption.
The government is encouraging the rail-to-road trend by increasing fares and lowering fuel taxes. This trend is likely to accelerate if a strike is called.
What rights do I have if my train is cancelled?
You are entitled to a full refund. Railway operators will not honor claims for alternative transportation.
What does each side say?
The RMT says: “We sincerely hope that ministers will encourage employers to return to the negotiating table and negotiate a reasonable agreement with the RMT.”
Network Rail Chief Executive Andrew Haines says: “Everyone loses in a strike.
“We are at a pivotal point in the railroad’s recovery from the pandemic. The taxpayer has provided the industry with £16bn worth of extra life support over the last two years and it cannot go on like this.
“Travel habits have changed forever, and railroads must change too to adapt to this new reality.”
Steve Montgomery, group chairman of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents rail operators, said: “Every company wants to support their employees and rail is no exception.
“But as an industry, we need to change the way we work and improve productivity to go our own way.
“Ask taxpayers to shoulder the burden after the government spent over £16bn during Covid
Anything else in sight?
Transport for Wales and ScotRail were not involved in the RMT vote – but ScotRail is currently canceling 700 trains a day as a result of a dispute with train drivers’ union Aslef.
The employee of the railway union TSSA is threatening a “summer of dissatisfaction”, as its general secretary has called it. Members will be consulted ahead of a possible strike vote if pay fails to keep up with inflation – which hit 9 percent last week.
Ministers say they could impose a minimum staffing level. How would that work?
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told The Sunday Telegraph that ministers are looking into drafting legislation that would make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff work to ensure a minimum level of service.
Similar laws exist in other countries – and are often enforced when air traffic controllers go out of business.
But Mick Lynch said: said: ‘Any attempt by Grant Shapps to make effective strikes illegal on the railways will meet the fiercest opposition from the RMT and the wider trade union movement.
“We have not fought tooth and nail for railway workers since our ancestors founded the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1872 to docilely accept a future in which our members would be prevented from legally retiring from their jobs.”