A trade union boss has warned of a national rail strike which would “bring the country to a standstill” if cuts to maintenance jobs aren’t reversed.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT) has called for a ballot on strike action which could take place in the summer.
Why are the RMT calling a strike ballot?
Over 40,000 railway workers on Network Rail and 15 train operating companies (TOCs) will be balloted for strike action in what the RMT has called “potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history”.
The RMT has hit out at Network Rail’s intention to cut at least 2,500 “safety critical maintenance jobs” as part of a £2bn reduction in spending on the network.
They say railway staff have been subject to pay freezes, threats to jobs and attacks on their terms and conditions.
The government, which ultimately runs Network Rail, has said it is “overhauling the sector and moving it off taxpayer life support”.
The ballot opens April 26 and closes May 24, meaning industrial action could begin “as early as June” if enough members turnout and vote ‘yes’ to strike action.
The 15 train operating companies RMT are balloting is as follows: 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, West Midlands Train.
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.
"Train Operating Companies have praised our 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.”
Trade unions have been warning for some time that widespread industrial action could take place over proposed job cuts.
In January, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association raised concerns that workers in the rail industry will be forced out of jobs as a result of the cost of living crisis.
The TSSA called for an extension to a no compulsory redundancy agreement, which would protect employees who wish to stay in the industry from forced redundancies.
The industry is already set to see a significant number of jobs lost to voluntary severance schemes, but unions say they’ve been told this won’t be enough to cover central government-enforced cuts worth £2bn.
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: “Our union has been crystal clear that any threat to use compulsory redundancies will be met with industrial action ballots.
“We will of course seek to coordinate any industrial action with our sister rail unions and any other workers fighting the Tories’ cost of living standards crisis.
“A national rail strike in 2022 is very much on the cards.”
Why do trade unions call strikes?
The rate of industrial action across the country is at a five-year high, as many workers are struggling to maintain their standard of living as costs rise.
Most people will not see their pay increase in line with inflation this year, meaning they will suffer a real-terms loss in their income.
But some workers who are in trade unions which are fighting for better conditions have been able to secure above-inflation pay rises.
Mr Lynch added: "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."
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “We want a fair deal for staff, passengers and taxpayers so the railway doesn’t take money away from other essential public services like the NHS and this kind of irresponsible disruption only makes things worse, damaging our economy just as it is recovering.
“The Government committed £15 billion to keep trains running throughout the pandemic but passenger levels are still less than three quarters what they were in 2019, so, to avoid a similar decline seen in the 1950s-60s where car usage saw many leave the railways, we are overhauling the sector and moving it off taxpayer life support.”