When will train strikes end? What Network Rail, train firms and unions say on dispute and Downing Street role

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Union and ministers due to hold fresh talks as Network Rail bosses talk of settlement ‘within touching distance’

Hopes of an end to rail strikes appear to be hanging in the balance after union leaders warned of major hurdles in reaching a resolution.

One union representative even said an agreement was futher away than ever as unions and rail bosses gave evidence to a committee of MPs.

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Britain’s rail network has been crippled by six months of strikes as members of multiple trade unions walk out in a dispute over pay, job security, working conditions and modernisation plans. The last round of action by the RMT and Aslef saw up to 80% of rail services cancelled across five days in early January.

There are currently no more strikes dates planned but the RMT and Aslef have said that action could continue until May when their current mandates for strike action run out.

There are three main disputes on the railways and differing view on how quickly each might be resolved.

The RMT is in dispute with Network Rail and 14 train operating companies while Aslef is taking action at 15 train companies and the Transport and Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) is in dispute with 10 rail companies. All three are due to hold futher talks with rail bosses and government representatives in coming days.

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The TSSA and Unite recently reached settlements with Network Rail but in December the RMT rejected an offer from the firm responsible for the nationwide rail infrastructure. More than 63% of members voted with the union’s recommendation to reject the offer, which included a 9% pay rise over two years. It has, however, reached settlements with some operators including ScotRail, Transport for Wales and Eurostar.

Giving evidence to the transport select committee, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said there was still no sign of an agreement with Network Rail or the train operating companies [TOCs] but Network Rail’s chief negiotiator said he was confident progress was being made.

(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Lynch told MPs: “We haven’t got an agreement. Until we get an agreement we’re not close to it.” He hinted that some progress was being made on modernisation plans and working conditions but said talks were still a “long way” from an acceptable offer on pay.

Lynch said current offers from TOCs included “stark choices” over working conditions and even a revised offer might be rejected by RMT members. He also said that attempts to enforce driver only operation [DOO] would be a deal-breaker. He said: “We will never sign up to accept DOO. It will never happen as long as the RMT exists.”

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Aslef general secretary Mick Wheelan said there was “zero” chance of a resolution after the latest offer from the train firms included “red line” conditions that Aslef would never accept, including DOO across the network. He said the offer made on Friday 6 January “smashed” many of the conditions set out in an enabling agreement, adding: “I cannot recommend any one element of that and it may destroy that ability to come back to these talks in future.”

Steve Montgomery, chair of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) which represents the train companies, admitted that talks with Aslef were not moving as quickly as he hoped but claimed there was an “opportunity to move forward” with the RMT and TSSA.

He told the transport committee: “RMT, I believe that we have an opportunity to try and move forward. I think we’re within reasonable areas of where I think we can get a deal. TSSA is a very similar position where we’ve got further discussions tomorrow.

“Aslef is slightly different. We need to do more with them and try and get back round the table. That one is probably further behind the other two at this moment in time.”

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While the TSSA has reached an agreement with Network Rail its general secretary Frank Ward said the situation was “totally different” with the train companies. He said the Network Rail deal gave a template for a “way forward” on talks with the RDG but added: “The reality is we’re continually in talks with RDG. We get to a stage whereby we think there’s progress being made, they go back to talk to their paymasters [at the Deparment for Transport] and we get an offer from the RDG that bears no relationship in parts to the talks that have just concluded.”

All three unions have accused the DfT of interfering in negotiations and inserting deal-breaking conditions. Lynch said the government had a “Stalinist” approach to controlling discussions while Ward said the RDG can’t make any agreement without sign off from the DfT and ministers.

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) | Getty Images

Montgomery admitted to MPs the RDG has to “seek permission” from the Government before making offers aimed at resolving industrial disputes. He said: “Government have the overall funding of the industry, the contracts that are now set up particularly for train operating companies, we are very much reliant on and come back to Government.

“That’s why myself and the negotiating team, we’re trying to do this centralised framework agreement, so that we can then go to Government and say, ‘look we believe that we’ve negotiated these areas of reform, we believe it could be worth X, Y, and Z, and we believe that could result in a pay increase of whatever that pay increase is’.

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“We want to be able to offer that to the trade unions, and that is obviously submitted to the DfT and obviously people have to check these things and we will get a mandate back on what we believe is a sensible offer.”

Despite the unions’ stance, Network Rail chief negotiator Tim Shoveller rated the progress towards resolving the dispute with the RMT as a seven on a scale of one to 10. He told the MPs: “For RMT, 36% of their members that are Network Rail employees voted yes for the deal. So, we’re a bit short of the 50% that we need. It’s couple of thousand people that need to change their vote.

“I think there’s every chance by some very carefully targeted discussions at achieving [the 50%].”

He also said that Network Rail had seen a “pattern” of employees returning to work during strikes in small groups, adding: “I’m perpetually optimistic because in doing these types of roles we have to keep searching repeatedly for an area where we have alignment and something we can build on.”

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Before the unions gave evidence to the committee transport minister Mark Harper urged them to get “off the picket line and round the negotiating table” and insisted ministers had not intervened to add unacceptable conditions into recent offers.

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