Talks fail to avert rail strikes in Liverpool on Grand National day

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent
Last year’s Grand National. Merseyrail has revised its timetables for Saturday to prioritise people travelling to the Aintree racecourse. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Reuters

Talks between the RMT union and train companies to head off industrial action have broken down, with strike action now confirmed for Saturday across Southern, Northern and Merseyrail networks.

The 24-hour walkout will mean many services being cancelled in the north, including on Merseyrail on Grand National Day. The action is linked to disputes about the roles and responsibilities of conductors.

Southern’s operating company, GTR, said it would run a near-normal service on Saturday. The firm said more than half of its conductors reported for work during the last strike, in March, and it plans to cancel trains only between Clapham Junction in south London and Milton Keynes Central, a route also served by other operators.

Southern’s passenger services director, Angie Doll, said: “We’re now running a near-normal service on RMT strike days, so fewer people are being affected by the RMT’s action. This week, we plan to provide almost our entire normal Saturday timetable.”

Commuter groups claimed that Southern’s improved operations had come at the expense of disabled and elderly passengers, with assistance now having to be pre-booked at dozens of stations across its network. A protest was due to be held at London Bridge on Wednesday evening.

Faryal Velmi, director of Transport for All, said: “We have heard daily from disabled transport users stranded on freezing platforms, or forced to crawl onto trains when rail companies have failed to assist them. This unacceptable backwards step for access simply cannot be allowed to stand so we’re coming together to demand that Southern Rail reverse their decision.”

Emily Yates, co-founder of Association of British Commuters, said Southern was “turning the clock back on access rights”. She added that the government should “hold train operating companies to account and ensure they comply with equality law”.

The RMT leader, Mick Cash, told members who work for Southern that the union would be available for further talks, but negotiations with GTR had broken down on Tuesday without progress. The failure came after Southern drivers who belong to the Aslef union refused to ratify a deal struck between the union’s leaders and GTR.

Talks between Arriva Rail North and the RMT on Wednesday also failed to find any resolution.

Richard Allan, deputy managing director of Arriva Rail North, said: “If we are to modernise and give our customers the improvements they’ve been asking for we have to change the way we work. We believe we would keep a second person on many of our services and, at some locations, we may choose to staff the station to give better support to customers.”

He added: “It is hugely disappointing that the union is making demands rather than working alongside us in developing our plans to modernise local rail services in the north.”

Merseyrail has revised its timetables for Saturday to prioritise people travelling to the Aintree racecourse to watch the Grand National, with other services being reduced or cancelled. The firm urged the RMT to call off the strike, especiallyafter a new statement from the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, endorsing the safety in principle of operating trains without guards - something Merseyail intends to do from 2020 when new trains are delivered.

Managing director of Merseyrail, Jan Chaudhry-van der Velde, said the regulator had “proved beyond doubt” that the companies’ plans were safe.

“The question should not be who opens and close the doors, but how staff can be best deployed on-board. We have plenty of time – three years – to discuss and agree this with the unions. That is why there is no need to go ahead with the damaging Grand National strike, which will only bring misery to local people and hurt the reputation of our city region on its biggest day of the year.”

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