Northern Rail is warning customers not to travel next week unless absolutely necessary as rail workers are set to stage further strikes over pay.
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) have planned two 48-hour strikes planned for before Christmas, and two in the New Year, which is set to cause travel chaos for commuters.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, said this week that strikes would be going ahead as part of the long-running dispute between unions, operators and Network Rail over pay, jobs and conditions.
Workers are set to walk out on Tuesday 13 and Wednesday 14, and again on Friday 16 and Saturday 17. Rail services will be decimated over that period, with many areas having no trains at all.
RMT workers at Network Rail will also strike from 6pm on Christmas Eve until 6am on 27 December. It is likely that passengers travelling on Christmas Eve will be urged to complete their journeys by the time that industrial action begins. The affected dates in January are Tuesday 3 and Wednesday 4, and Friday 6 and Saturday 7.
Passengers are being warned to expect a “very limited service” on strikes days with “no trains at all on some routes”. Services are also likely to start late and end early.
Tricia Williams, chief operating officer at Northern, said: “This is the last thing we want to do in the run-up to Christmas. But with the RMT pressing ahead with these 48-hour strikes, we have no option but to advise customers not to travel. We can only apologise once again for the disruption their action will cause.”
Disruption on the railways will be inevitable even if strikes are aborted because of how long it takes to restore a normal timetable. Network Rail said 50% of the UK’s railways will be shut down on strike days, regardless of whether the walkouts go ahead.
The rail company added that only 20% of services will operate between 7.30am and 6.30pm. Delays and cancellations are also expected on days during the week when strike action is not taking place as staff shift patterns mean it takes time for all workers to return.
There are also fears that disruption to rail services in northern England will continue when new timetables are introduced on Sunday (11 December). Several routes which suffered cuts earlier this year will get more trains scheduled, but there is concern that the failure to resolve staffing issues means the cancellation of thousands of trains in recent months will continue. Operators have often resorted to removing trains from schedules the night before, meaning they are not officially classed as cancelled.
Government accused of ‘blocking’ pay deal
Rail union leaders have accused the government of “blocking” a deal to end the long running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions which is threatening travel chaos in the run up to Christmas.
The Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) said the strikes “come gift wrapped from Rishi Sunak”, claiming the government was preventing rail employers from making any improvements to offers for workers in train operating companies.
The RMT made the same claim on Wednesday evening (7 December), warning that a resolution is now further away. Members of both unions, and Unite, are set to launch a series of strikes over the coming weeks which will cripple services.
Mr Lynch said railway employers wanted to make an offer in a bid to break the deadlock, but claimed it was withdrawn by the government.
He said a demand that the RMT accept the widespread use of driver-only trains was included at the last minute, at the insistence of ministers, but rail employers knew the union would not accept it.
“The government has torpedoed the talks. I don’t know if it’s deliberate or incompetence,” he said. “The employers know what they want to do but they are being instructed by the government not to do it.”
Mr Lynch said RMT members were still strongly supporting the industrial action, which will continue next week with two 48-hour strikes. Earlier this week, he insisted he does not want strikes to go ahead before Christmas but argued that his members are being forced into action by the government not allowing train operators a proper mandate to negotiate on pay and conditions.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We regret the inconvenience that we are causing but this inconvenience is being caused by the government who are running the playbook and the strategy for the companies and directing what’s going on. They’ve held back even these paltry offers to the last minute so they know it’s very difficult to deal with these offers.”
He added that there is always a wind-down of trains on Christmas Eve but, when pressed whether there will be earlier disruption because of the action, he said “yes, there will be”, adding: “They will run up until the evening time. We don’t want this to happen at Christmas.
“If we don’t respond they will just assume the dispute is over and they’ve got their way so we have to respond to that. I hope the companies change their positions before the action takes place on December 13 and we can cancel the action – but I’ve been hoping for that all summer.”
What has the government said?
Downing Street has urged the RMT to accept a deal including a 4% pay rise to follow this year’s 5%, and no compulsory redundancies until 2025, rather than the union’s “unaffordable” double-digit demands.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said: “It’s incredibly disappointing that the RMT has chosen to take further damaging action instead of recognising this is a generous and fair deal that could have brought this dispute to an end.
“We believe the RMT need to take this offer seriously. We’ve been fair and reasonable in our approach.”
Government minister Nick Gibb also called on the union to “call off this strike” and told GB News: “It’s inconveniencing people up and down the country in the run-up to Christmas. I think it’s a very poor way of conducting negotiations.
“We would urge the unions to talk to employers, to keep negotiating and not to hold the country to ransom, particularly in December as we get nearer to Christmas.”