Rail travellers around Britain could face a summer of chaos as the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union plans to ballot more than 40,000 members for strike action.
The union said on Wednesday that a “yes” vote from members could lead to the biggest rail strike in modern history and “bring the country to a standstill”, affecting hundreds of thousands of passengers on services across the country.
The RMT’s general secretary Mick Lynch said the ballot had been called amid concerns over the impact Network Rail’s future business strategy would have on pay, conditions and safety.
Rail operators, however, have claimed talk of strike action is “premature” as the industry tries to recover from the effects of the pandemic.
Why is the RMT planning strike action?
The RMT union says it is balloting members amid ongoing “attacks on their terms and conditions”, pay freezes and plans for thousands of job cuts.
It says Network Rail is planning to cut at least 2,500 safety-critical maintenance jobs as part of a £2 billion spending reduction, with Mr Lynch warning such a move will put public safety at risk.
He 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.
“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.”
When will the strikes happen?
The ballot on industrial action opens on 26 April 26 and closes on 24 May.
If members vote in favour of strike action, it is thought that disruption could begin as early as June.
Which train compaines and services will be affected?
The RMT is balloting more than 40,000 staff across Network Rail and 15 train operators.
Those operators 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 Trains.
Between them, they cover thousands of miles of routes across Britain, from the south-east and south-west of England to the Scottish Highlands.
What is Network Rail’s response?
Network Rail has insisted that it has not tabled any proposals or consultation papers and is discussing ideas.
Its regional director, Tim Shoveller, warned that it needed to save millions of pounds in order to offer a sustainable future and urged the union to “work with us, not against us” to modernise the network.
He said: “Our railway has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, and even as passenger numbers start to recover, 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.
“Our modernisation programme aims to build a sustainable future that delivers for passengers and creates better and safer jobs for our people.”
He added: “We would not consider any changes that would make the railway less safe.”
A Rail Delivery Group spokesman 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.”