The Government has lost more money due to rail strikes than it would have cost to settle the dispute months ago, the rail minister has admitted.
Huw Merriman told MPs that the cost of bailing out the train operating companies during recent industrial action had “absolutely” exceeded the financial impact of meeting the trade unions’ pay demands. However, he told the Transport Select Committee that meeting the rail unions’ demands could have caused problems in other public sector pay disputes.
He revealed that the overall cost to the UK economy was in the region of £1 billion between June and December 2022 and the cost to the rail industry was £25 million per day on a weekday and £15m on a weekend day.
During a hearing on the rail strikes, committee member Ben Bradshaw put it to Mr Merriman that “we’re talking of a cost to the Government of over a billion (pounds) so far. That would easily be enough money to have solved this dispute months ago, wouldn’t it?”
The minister replied: “If you look at it in that particular lens, then absolutely, it’s actually ended up costing more than would have been the case if it was just settled in that part.
“But, again, we have to look at the overall impact on the public sector pay deals that are going across, and we also have to look on the ability for the reforms that don’t often get talked about, but they’re absolutely vital as part of the package.
“It’s the reforms that will actually pay for these pay deals and also make the railway more efficient in the long run as well.”
Trade unions, including Aslef and the RMT insist that some of the reforms indicated by Merriman are deal-breakers, including the wider roll-out of driver only operated (DOO) trains. Mick Whelan of train drivers’ union Aslef said the matter was a red line for its members while RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the RMT would never accept DOO.
The unions, including the TSSA have accused the DfT of interfering in negotiations and inserting conditions, including around DOO, into settlements offered by the train operating companies.
Giving evidence to the same committee last week, TSSA general secretary Frank Ward said of recent negotiations: “Driver only wasn’t part of the discussion we’d been having and the talks we’d been having had made some progress. When they came back with the formal offer [after speaking to the DfT] with reference to drivers only it came out of nowhere for us.”
Asked if the DOO conditions had been inserted at the 11th hour to “torpedo” the negotiations, Mr Merriman insisted the Government had not “interfered in a negative manner”.
He said that DOO had “always been involved as a concept” in the reforms and insisted it was a “matter between train operators and drivers” to reach an agreement on its introduction.
He added: “I believe that we’ve been able to intervene positively. We’ve been able to refresh mandates. That has led to settlements with the TSSA and Unite.
“I very much hope that will lead to settlement with the RMT, that have been responsible for 70% of industrial action over the last year.
“There are talks going on this morning between the Rail Delivery Group and the RMT, and there have been talks going on last week and into this week with the RMT and Network Rail.
“So, I’m really hopeful that those talks will lead to a settlement.”