End to rail strikes ‘further away than ever’, says union boss

Unions tell MPs deal with train companies isn’t even close and claim goverment is sabotaging talks

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An end to the train strikes crippling Britain’s rail network is further away than ever, according to one train union leader.

Asked by MPs how close a resolution was on a scale of one to 10, Mick Wheelan, general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef said: “I think you can include zero. We’re further away than when we started.”

Wheelan was giving evidence to MPs alongside RMT general secretary Mick Lynch and Frank Ward of the TSSA, both of whom said there was no agreement in sight and blamed the Department for Transport (DfT) for “sabotaging” talks between unions and train operators.

Wheelan said that he could not recommend a single element of a deal offered by rail operators on Friday and warned “it may destroy that ability to come back to these talks in future”.

The RMT held talks with Network Rail and the DfT on Monday and is due to resume negotiations with the train companies tomorrow but Lynch told the committee: “We haven’t got an agreement. Until we get an agreement we’re not close to it.”

All three union representatives said that the latest offers from the train operating companies (TOC) included clauses added by the government which crossed “red lines” their members would not accept.

These included the widespread use of driver only operation on trains, which the RMT and Aslef said they would never accept and the TSSA said “came out of nowhere” in the latest offer.

The unions are calling for pay increases for their members alongside guarantees on job security and conditions. Lynch said the current proposals not only failed to raise pay in line with inflation but also included changes to conditions that the RMT’s members wouldn’t accept.

Mick Wheelan told MPs a resolution was ‘futher away than when we started’ (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)Mick Wheelan told MPs a resolution was ‘futher away than when we started’ (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Mick Wheelan told MPs a resolution was ‘futher away than when we started’ (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

He said: “The cumulative inflation for 2022 and 2023 is in excess of 20%, we’ve been offered 8% by the TOCs for those two years and 9% by Network Rail.

“They’re seeking drastic changes such as the elimination of ticket offices in Britain. The last version of the offer we had from the TOC, there will be no guards either. These are very stark choices. Plus they want to dilute all our contractual terms and conditions.

“Even if a revised package comes forward, I don’t know if our members will go anywhere near accepting those proposals.”

Ward said that the TSSA’s settelement with Network Rail laid a template for progress elsewhere but interference by the DfT was obstructing progress.

He said: The reality is we’re continually in talks with [TOC body] the Rail Delivery Group. We get to a stage whereby we think there’s progress being made, they go back to talk to their paymasters [at the DfT] and we get an offer from the RDG that bears no relationship in parts to the talks that have just concluded.”

All three union leaders hit out at the DfT and previous transport secretaries for what Lynch called “provocations”. Lynch said: “The damage is conceived and controlled in the Department for Transport. This is their project, they knew that there would be an industrial response from the trade unions, they decided to make what they would think was a great leap forward and provoke the workforce and attack the workforce.

“Rather than try to get consent and evolution of the railway, they went for this great leap forward and it’s blown up in their faces.”

Network Rail’s chief negotiator Tim Shoveller told the commitee he thought a resolution with the RMT was getting closer, saying: “I would place that at seven [out of 10].” He also said that there had been a “pattern” of employees returning to work during recent strikes.

Steve Montgomery, who chairs the Rail Delivery Group, said he believed there was an “opportunity to move forward” with the RMT and TSSA but added that talks with Aslef had not progressed as quickly as he wanted.