More than 40,000 workers at Network Rail and 15 train operating companies are to be balloted for strike action in what the RMT union has called “potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history”.
The union said that Network Rail intends to cut at least 2,500 “safety-critical maintenance jobs” as part of a £2bn reduction in spending, while staff from the train opertaing companies have been subject to pay freezes, threats to their jobs and changes to their terms and conditions. The ballot opens next week and closes 24 May 2022.
If RMT members vote in favour of strike action and if turnout is high enough, then the union has said a national rail strike could begin as early as June.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Railway workers have had to contend with pay freezes, the prospect of losing their jobs and repeated attacks on their terms and conditions. Removing 2,500 safety critical jobs from Network Rail will spell disaster for the public, make accidents more likely and will increase the possibility of trains flying off the tracks.”
A national rail strike will bring the country to a standstill, but our members livelihoods and passenger safety are our priorities” – Mick Lynch, RMT
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operating companies and Network Rail, said: “The pandemic was an unprecedented shock for the railway, with the lowest passenger numbers in over 150 years and record levels of public funding to keep it running.
“Our whole focus now should be securing a thriving future for rail that adapts to new travel patterns and takes no more than its fair share from taxpayers, instead of staging premature industrial action which would disrupt passengers’ lives and put the industry’s recovery at risk.
“For the sake of our people and everyone who relies on our railway every day, we want the RMT to work with us to bring how we run our services up to date so that it is more reliable, more affordable and inspires more passengers back on board.”
Lynch said that train operating companies have praised RMT members for being key workers during the pandemic but have “refused to” keep staff pay in line with inflation and soaring living costs.
“As a result, thousands of railway workers have seen their living standards plummet and have run out of patience,” he explained. “The way for trade unions to effectively take on the cost-of-living crisis is to stand up for their members at work and take industrial action when employers are not moved by the force of reasoned argument.
“A national rail strike will bring the country to a standstill, but our members livelihoods and passenger safety are our priorities.”
Network Rail said it was disappointed with the RMT union’s ballot and urged it to work with the rail infrastructure company to reach a solution. Regional director Tim Shoveller said: “We know travel habits and passenger demand have changed and the industry has to change, too. We cannot keep relying on government handouts, and so we must work together with train operators and our trades unions to save millions of pounds and deliver a more efficient railway.”
He added that Network Rail would not consider “any changes that would make the railway less safe”.
The 15 train operating companies the RMT is balloting are: Chiltern Railways, Cross Country Trains, Greater Anglia, LNER, East Midlands Railway, c2c, Great Western Railway, Northern Trains, South Eastern Railway, South Western Railway, Island Line, GTR (including Gatwick Express), Transpennine Express, Avanti West Coast and West Midlands Train.