The largest rail strikes in three decades are set to begin on Monday night, barring an unexpected late breakthrough in discussions, with trains being cancelled across the United Kingdom for the majority of the week.
Senior rail sector figures and union leaders met throughout the day to attempt to prevent industrial action, while neither side nor the government seemed optimistic that an agreement could be achieved.
The first of three 24-hour strikes by 40,000 RMT members, including signallers, maintenance, and train staff, will begin shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning, with only one out of every five trains running on strike days and services in much of northern and south-west England, Wales, and Scotland being halted entirely.
Strikes, overpay, and attempts to reorganize the rail business with post-Covid work patterns impacting commuter income will cause six days of disruption, with trains limited to one every hour on major intercity and urban routes between 7.30 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. On subsequent days, services will begin later and be limited.
Employees of Network Rail, as well as onboard and station workers from 13 train operators in England, are taking action. Thousands of jobs in maintenance are at jeopardy, according to the RMT, and ticket office closures are planned, on top of pay freezes amid a period of high inflation.
The signallers’ strike will have the greatest impact, especially in rural areas, resulting in line closures in countries like Wales where there is no direct disagreement with the railway operator. On strike days, most operators have advised passengers to travel only if absolutely essential. Passengers on Northern Rail have been warned not to travel for the entire week.
While the Conservatives have attempted to link the union-backed Labour Party to the strikes, Labour has pointed out that Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and other ministers have refused to participate in discussions.
Unions requested meetings with ministers, claiming that the Treasury and Department of Transportation are in charge of contracts and funds. According to industry insiders and unions, train operating companies have been warned they cannot grant salary raises, and Shapps stated it was up to employers to negotiate.
Louise Haigh, the shadow transport minister, said on the BBC Today programme on Monday that the government needed to intervene. “Not only are they boycotting the negotiations, but they are also impeding them,” she stated.
“There’s no point spreading false hope, if you like, that these strikes can be avoided,” Simon Clarke, the Treasury’s chief secretary, told the BBC. They are most likely to move forward at this point.”
Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, is expected to introduce legislation allowing agency workers to fill in during strikes, which might be enacted by late July and apply to future strikes. The RMT claimed that replacing skilled rail workers would be hard, and a spokeswoman said it was “playing to the gallery.”
After Labour accused the government of urging the walkouts to go ahead in order to fuel division, Shapps said on Sunday that it was “insane” to think that the Tories wanted rail unions to strike. He claimed the strikes were “unnecessary” and the consequence of “gunning for a battle” by trade union officials, accusing the RMT of plotting to “punish millions of innocent people.”
Shapps warned rail workers last week that they were risking “striking yourself out of a job.” The disruptions are expected to cost the industry £150 million in missed revenue, according to Network Rail executives.
Network Rail and the RMT have been in talks, although employers agree there is little chance of a breakthrough.
The walkouts are scheduled on June 21, 23, and 25, and a special schedule will be in effect from Monday through Sunday, with some evening services shortened. Trains will travel on mainlines and in metropolitan areas for about 20% of the time.
A separate London Underground strike will bring much of the capital’s transportation to a halt on Tuesday, adding to commuter misery. Approximately 10,000 RMT members will go on strike for 24 hours, effectively shutting down most tube lines. People are being warned to avoid all of Transport for London’s services if at all possible, as buses are expected to be full and delayed on congested roads.
The nationwide rail strike will continue to affect the London overground and Elizabeth lines throughout the week.
Other unions may join the rail strike later this summer, potentially halting service entirely. The TSSA union, which represents control room employees and managers who step in to run contingency signaling, is polling members at Network Rail, and more train operators announced strike votes last week.