Fears 'biggest rail strike in modern history' will create 'serious challenges' in keeping goods moving and supermarkets stocked

·3-min read

Fears of yet more supply issues and empty supermarket shelves have been raised after rail unions warned of "potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history".

The Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union is balloting 40,000 members on the move, which network sources have reportedly said would create "serious challenges" in keeping goods moving and supermarket shelves stocked.

Contingency plans are being drawn up to try to keep freight and passenger trains running if the strikes go ahead.

The vote includes staff on Network Rail and 15 train operating companies, with the RMT saying the action is being taken over pay, compulsory redundancies and safety concerns.

The union has also announced it intends to ballot members in Scotland for strike action, following what it describes as a "derisory" 2.2% pay offer by ScotRail and proposed timetable changes which it branded a "kick in the teeth" to workers.

And another union, the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA), has warned of a "summer of discontent" with similar action on the way unless pay disputes are resolved.

TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes has said many members have not seen a wage increase for two years.

"If the Department for Transport, Train Operating Companies and Network Rail don't come forward very soon with proposed pay increases, which at least match inflation, a summer of discontent is on the way across our railways," Mr Cortes said.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps will meet with the prime minister and chancellor next week to discuss the threat amid fears in Whitehall the action could be worse than the junior doctor walkout in 2015, The Times has reported.

'Serious challenges keeping goods and people moving'

Specific details about the action have not yet been outlined by the RMT.

But rail bosses could respond by reserving certain times of day exclusively for the passing of freight trains, according to the paper.

A senior rail source is quoted by the paper as saying: "We want to keep people and goods moving but there is no doubt we face serious challenges.

"There is an awful lot of work going on behind the scenes including around what the timetable might look like. One option is times of the day when only freight services operate."

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Passengers could face travel chaos

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has urged against what it describes as a "premature" ballot but said it was drawing up contingency plans to try to lessen the effects of any potential strike.

A spokesperson said "nobody wins when rail is disrupted".

The group urged the RMT to end its ballot but added: "Like any responsible industry we are contingency planning to minimise the impact of potential strike action on the economy and to keep goods and passengers moving this summer."

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said its members had been praised during the pandemic as "key workers" but their pay had not kept in line with inflation and rising costs of living and there had been "repeated attacks" on their terms and conditions of employment.

He also said removing 2,500 "safety-critical jobs" from Network Rail would "spell disaster for the public", and make accidents more likely.

"A national rail strike will bring the country to a standstill, but our members' livelihoods and passenger safety are our priorities."

The ballot will be among RMT members on Network Rail and 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. It closes on Tuesday and the results will be known the following day.

Tim Shoveller, Network Rail's regional director, said: "We are disappointed the RMT has taken this decision and urge them again to work with us, not against us, as we build an affordable railway fit for the future."

He added: "We would not consider any changes that would make the railway less safe."

The Department for Transport has been contacted for comment.

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