Last-ditch talks with rail unions to avoid Christmas travel meltdown
Rail unions are locked in crunch negotiations with train companies in a bid to avoid travel chaos over the Christmas period.
The drivers’ union Aslef announced on Thursday a series of one-day walkouts across 16 train companies between Saturday 2 and Friday 8 December, in a blow to many businesses gearing up for the busiest time of the year.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said the strikes will cost her sector up to £800m and that the ongoing rail dispute has already cost £3.5billion over the past 18 months.
Aslef has a mandate for strike action which runs until January, meaning there is the potential for more strike dates over Christmas and New Year.
Mr Harper claims that there is a “fair and reasonable” pay offer for train drivers on the table which Aslef should put to its members. But the union says the deal comes with significant changes to terms and conditions across all train operating companies (TOCs) which they will not agree to.
However, i understands there is a desire to reach an agreement and with Aslef due to renew its six-month mandate in early December it could mean a pause in walkouts.
“I would be surprised if there’s any more strike action this side of the year,” a union source said.Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper has been accused of being ‘missing in action’ (Photo: Reuters/Hannah McKay)
This week the RMT union, which represents more than 80,000 rail workers, and the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) announced a “memorandum of understanding” (MoU) which could see strike action paused until the spring.
The agreement would see workers get a pay rise backdated to 2022 as well as job security “guarantees”, the RDG said.
The RMT is in the process of putting the MoU to its members in each of the train operating companies for a vote.
If accepted this would end the national dispute and discussions would move forward at a local level. The ballot runs until the end of November.
Both unions are required to give two weeks’ notice ahead of any industrial action.
A senior rail source told i: “There’s never a good time for strike action – we’re really focused on trying to avoid that as much as we can.
“The run-up to Christmas and Christmas itself is really important for businesses.
“With the RMT, we are hopeful that the solution out for a vote passes, that would mean a pause over Christmas and money in staff pockets in time for festivities.
“On Aslef, our offer is still on the table, whether there is any more movement remains to be seen.”
Another well-placed source told i: “I do think, based on what’s happening with the RMT, we can’t be far off [an end to the current rail disputes].”
However, businesses leaders say the latest train strikes, which have now continued for 18 months, will cause further economic damage ahead of the crucial Christmas and New Year period.
The combination of strikes and engineering works during the holiday period last year saw hundreds of passengers stuck in queues at train stations and facing long delays or replacement bus services.
Network Rail warned passengers to avoid travel for two weeks unless absolutely necessary due to the “significant” disruption, and road journey times were predicted to be 14 per cent longer as a result of people choosing to travel by car instead.
Henri Murison, chief executive of the lobby group Northern Powerhouse Partnership, told i: “As a business community we strongly encourage the Government to deliver an end to the dispute and a more reliable railway.
“It’s a fallacy that this is between employers and unions – central government is making decisions over the railway now.
“Ministers and the Treasury need to find a way forward that avoids any more industrial action, the cost to the wider economy is significant and growing.
All Aslef members will also refuse to work any overtime from Friday 1 December to Saturday 9 December.
Aslef members will walk out at EMR and LNER on 2 December; at Avanti West Coast, Chiltern, Great Northern Thameslink, and WMT on 3 December; at C2C and Greater Anglia on 5 December; at Southeastern, Southern/Gatwick Express, the SWR main line and depot, and on the Island Line on 6 December; at CrossCountry and GWR on 7 December; and at Northern and TPT on 8 December.