Train strikes: Union chief says deal further away than ever as February walkouts loom

Train strikes: Union chief says deal further away than ever as February walkouts loom

A deal to stop further train strikes is further away than ever before, a rail union boss admitted on Wednesday.,

Aslef General Secretary Mick Whelan said he was "disappointed" his union had not been able to negotiate an agreement after weeks of intense talks.

He accused the government and rail companies of showing a "lack of integrity" during meetings, but added they would “not close the door” on negotiations.

When asked if his union were further away from a deal than ever before, he replied: "Yes."

He told Sky News: "That is because of the behaviours of the other side of the negotiating team."

Rail minister Huw Merriman has asked union bosses to meet for more urgent talks over the next two weeks.

"While we are incredibly hurt by this process, we are not going to close the door," Mr Whelan added. "We have to find a resolution some time."

The RMT union joined Aslef in announcing two more strike dates on Tuesday, shattering hopes of an end to the industrial action plaguing the country’s transport system.

Both unions said its members would walk out on Wednesday, February 1, and Friday, February 3. Aslef earlier said it had rejected an offer of about four per cent a year for two years on behalf of 15 train firms.

The companies affected include some of London’s busiest commuter routes, including Thameslink, Southeastern and Southern.

Also on February 1, a strike by 100,000 civil servants belonging to the PCS union will go ahead which will have an impact on governments, driving test centres, museums, ports and airports.

The same date teachers in England and Wales who are members of the National Education Union (NEU) will begin the first of seven days of walkouts.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, who blamed the “cost-of-living crisis”, said: “Our negotiations will continue with the rail operators to create a package on jobs, conditions and pay that can be offered to our members.”

UK: Train Strike | December 2022

Passengers view departure boards at Kings Cross station in London (PA)
Passengers view departure boards at Kings Cross station in London (PA)
Mick Lynch (centre) general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) joins members on the picket line outside London Euston train station during a strike in a long-running dispute over jobs and pensions (PA)
Mick Lynch (centre) general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) joins members on the picket line outside London Euston train station during a strike in a long-running dispute over jobs and pensions (PA)
Passengers view departure boards at Kings Cross station in London (PA)
Passengers view departure boards at Kings Cross station in London (PA)
A man with suitcases at an empty Paddington station (PA )
A man with suitcases at an empty Paddington station (PA )
A man looks at the departures board at Euston train station in London (PA)
A man looks at the departures board at Euston train station in London (PA)
Passengers view departure boards at Kings Cross station in London (PA)
Passengers view departure boards at Kings Cross station in London (PA)
Waterloo Station (Jeremy Selwyn)
Waterloo Station (Jeremy Selwyn)
Mich Lynch (Jeremy Selwyn)
Mich Lynch (Jeremy Selwyn)
A man with suitcases at an empty Paddington station (PA)
A man with suitcases at an empty Paddington station (PA)
Euston Station (Jeremy Selwyn)
Euston Station (Jeremy Selwyn)
Euston Station (Jeremy Selwyn)
Euston Station (Jeremy Selwyn)

Mr Whelan said: “The proposal is not and could not ever be acceptable but we are willing to engage in further discussions within the process that we previously agreed.

“Not only is the offer a real-terms pay cut, with inflation running north of 10 per cent, but it came with so many conditions attached that it was clearly unacceptable.”

Government sources said train drivers earned about £60,055 – and the increase would have taken average salaries to about £65,000 by the end of the year.

Last week Mr Whelan told MPs there was “zero” chance of resolving the dispute.

Aslef has already called drivers out on six days, most recently on January 5, in its pursuit of a pay offer.

It is having to deal with the Rail Delivery Group, which negotiates on behalf of the train firms, though it describes the RDG as a “cartel” acting on behalf of the Government.

RDG chair Steve Montgomery has insisted that the national railways need to modernise and self-fund any pay rise.

This is due to the scale of Government bailouts that were required to keep trains running during the pandemic and the fact that weekday passenger numbers are only around 80 per cent of normal.

But Aslef claims drivers’ terms and conditions are at risk of being “ripped up” under the deal being proposed.

Other train firms that will also be affected by the latest strikes include Avanti West Coast, Chiltern Railways, Great Western Railway, Greater Anglia; Great Northern, London North Eastern Railway and Gatwick Express.

It is likely there will be no trains on either day – and a knock-on impact in the morning of each day following a strike.

The RMT union, which represents train and station staff and workers at Network Rail, also remains in dispute but has not announced further strike dates.

Aslef has been angered at the way the pay offer has been made – months after the dispute started, with details shared with the media soon after an email was sent to union negotiators.

Mr Whelan said: “Irreparable harm has been done to the integrity of the negotiating process and the future ability to negotiate an appropriate way forward, but we make ourselves available anyway.

“Our members at these companies have not had an increase since 2019, despite soaring inflation, and it is time the companies – encouraged, perhaps, by the government – sat down with us and got serious.

“That is the way – and the only way – to end this dispute.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “Passengers have borne the brunt of these damaging strikes for far too long, so it’s incredibly disappointing Aslef has rejected the RDG’s offer outright and called more strikes before even getting round the negotiating table.

“The Government has played its part and facilitated conversations. We urge Aslef to play their part, call off strikes and consider this fair and reasonable offer to members, which would see train drivers receive a pay rise in line with the private sector without fuelling inflation, so we can bring this dispute to an end.”

A Rail Delivery Group spokesperson said it was disappointing its “fair and affordable” pay offer was not taken forward.

“With taxpayers still funding up to an extra £175 million a month to make up the shortfall in revenue post-covid, it provided a significant uplift in salary for train drivers while bringing in long overdue, common-sense reforms that would mean more reliable services for passengersm,” said the spokesman.

“Rather than announcing further unnecessary strikes, we ask Aslef to recognise the very real financial challenge the industry is facing and work with us to deliver a better railway with a strong long-term future.”

The first of the strike dates will coincide with a walkout by 100,000 civil servants in their dispute over pay and jobs, a strike by teachers over pay and nationwide protests against the Government's controversial new strike law.

The train companies affected by the strike include: Avanti West Coast; Chiltern Railways; CrossCountry; East Midlands Railway; Great Western Railway; Greater Anglia; GTR Great Northern Thameslink; London North Eastern Railway; Northern Trains; Southeastern; Southern/Gatwick Express; South Western Railway (depot drivers only); SWR Island Line; TransPennine Express; and West Midlands Trains.

The decision to stage further strikes comes after a meeting between unions and Rail Minister Huw Merriman on January 9.