Train strike chaos set to continue because ministers ‘won’t allow’ rail firms to negotiate pay with RMT union

Next week’s national rail strike is set to be followed by further disruption because ministers are refusing to give train companies the power to discuss pay, rail industry sources have told i.

Millions of passengers are set to face travel chaos as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) stages three 24-hour strikes on Tuesday 21 June, Thursday 23 June and Saturday 25 June.

The first nationwide strike for thirty years follows increasing tensions between the Government and the union over its demands for higher pay and better job security.

Now, sources within the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) that run services on behalf of the Department for Transport have revealed that talks are deadlocked because they are not being allowed to properly negotiate with the RMT.

Under the “franchise” model that had operated since the industry was privatised in the 1990s, rail firms were individually able to set detailed pay awards, along with work terms and conditions.

But the Covid pandemic’s huge hit to passenger numbers led to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to scrap the model and replace it with a system where the state effectively controls the railways by paying a flat fee to firms that kept services running.

In the process, individual rail companies have been left in a state of limbo when it comes to negotiating disputes with unions.

Technically, the RMT has to negotiate directly with the state-owned infrastructure body Network Rail and the 13 English rail companies.

In reality the rail firms’ room for maneouvre is limited by the DfT, and by any extra money the Treasury will make available.

The Government wants the railway to reduce costs by about 10 per cent. A £4bn annual taxpayer subsidy became roughly £12bn in Covid years and the Treasury has said rail subsidy must be slashed.

Unions complain their members are facing pay freezes despite soaring inflation. Rail bosses estimate 1,500 and 2,000 fewer staff would be needed after reforms, but insists this could be achieved through voluntary means.

One rail industry source said: “We are in talks with the RMT. But I can understand the union getting frustrated because all we are allowed to talk about is the overall boundaries. None of the TOCs have been given a clear mandate to negotiate detailed pay rates.

“If we get the right reforms to weekend working practices we want, and the union engage on staffing levels, I reckon we could hammer out a deal on pay. Without a mandate from Government we can’t even address the pay question.”

Sapps this week said the walkouts would cause “misery” for workers, those heading to Glastonbury festival, and students sitting the 17 public exams over the strike period.

Asked repeatedly on Thursday why he could not personally meet with the unions and Network Rail, to try and avert the strikes, he said “I can’t settle this”, adding that “it is for employers to negotiate pay” and “they set the terms and contracts”.

A Government source said that while there were pay and conditions “ceilings” set by the department, there was “no micromanagement of the negotiations”.

It is understood that rail firms and Network Rail report to Shapps on the progress of the talks but he allows autonomy within the guidelines set. Both the DfT and Treasury are said to be “hawkish” on demands to boost productivity to give taxpayers value for money.

More on Rail Strikes

But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The cat is out of the bag. Rather than acting in good faith and getting people around the table – ministers are actively blocking a negotiated settlement.

“If the strikes go ahead, it’s because ministers aren’t taking responsibility to help end them. The Government is deliberately picking a fight with unions to distract from its multiple failures.”

Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh said: “Not only are ministers boycotting the talks, but they’re tying the hands of those at the table.

“It is for the government to avoid these strikes and the disruption to the public. But it is becoming clearer by the day, ministers would rather provoke this dispute than lift a finger to resolve it.”

RMT members will strike at Network Rail and 13 English train companies: Chiltern, Cross Country, Greater Anglia, LNER, East Midlands, c2c, Great Western, Northern, South Eastern, South Western, TransPennine, Avanti West Coast and West Midlands.

In a separate but parallel dispute, RMT members on the London Underground will also strike on 21 June.

A DfT spokesperson denied that rail firms were not given a sufficient mandate for the talks.

“The rail industry continues to offer daily talks to the unions, including over the weekend, to resolve the dispute as soon as possible,” they said.

“The Rail Delivery Group [representing the 13 rail firms] are currently negotiating with the unions on behalf of all the operators. We urge the unions to call off the strikes and engage.”

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