OPINION - Train strikes deal is now just a numbers game

Ross Lydall for their Evening Standard byline picture at Evening Standard Studio, London. (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Ross Lydall for their Evening Standard byline picture at Evening Standard Studio, London. (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

SHORTLY before 7.15am, before the few trains that will run today had rolled out of their depot, came a perceptive comment about the state of the rail dispute. “We need 2,000 people who voted no last time to change their vote and the deal will pass,” Network Rail’s chief negotiator Tim Shoveller told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We think that’s within touching distance.”

Let’s not get overexcited. Rail strikes have been taking place since June last year. Major issues of principle are unresolved. Both sides are embedded. And the dispute has fractured into two: one involving 21,000 signallers and maintenance staff at Network Rail, the other 20,000 train and station staff at 14 train companies. But what Mr Shoveller was saying was: it’s now a game of numbers. If Network Rail can get a deal over the line, the chance of the train companies settling their part of the dispute increases. When the RMT first balloted its Network Rail members on strike action last May, some 14,146 of the 21,020 balloted said yes and 1,211 said no (5,688 didn’t bother to vote). When it sought to renew its six-month strike mandate in November, a total of 13,511 said yes, 1,240 said no and 6,286 didn’t vote.

When the RMT put the Network Rail offer — of about nine per cent, with more for low-paid workers, and no redundancies until January 2025 — to its members, 9,772 voted against accepting it, but 5,598 were in favour and 3,170 sat on their hands. So, of the “electorate” of 18,540, there was only 52.7 per cent support for continuing the strike. Yes, elections, including general elections, are won by those who vote, and the RMT did secure 64 per cent opposition to the deal after recommending it be rejected. But the TSSA and Unite unions, though smaller, and whose members are said to be less at risk from the proposed new working conditions, have accepted the deal. Could momentum be swinging towards a settlement?

Freezing on the picket line outside Euston, RMT secretary general Mick Lynch delivered something of a killer line: even on non-strike days, the travelling public is well aware of what a mess the railways are in. He said no more strike dates beyond this week were “on the stocks” and insisted: “Our needs are quite modest.” For the sake of passengers, the Government needs to find the right numbers to end this dispute.