Rail union leaders are warning of a national dispute over fears that thousands of maintenance jobs are set to be axed because of massive cuts in spending.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) is seeking urgent talks with the Government over the future of Network Rail (NR), as well as safety and maintenance standards on the railways.
RMT officials said they have been told that “drastic” cuts are being planned, with an announcement expected in the coming weeks.
The union said it was moving to a “dispute footing” to fight any job cuts, warning that NR was also planning to freeze pay and change working practices.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “Under orders from the Government, Network Rail is using the Covid-19 drop in passenger numbers and service levels to rush through the most radical restructuring of the railway infrastructure since privatisation.
“Rather than the post-Covid-19 return to rail recovery which our economy and climate desperately needs, this is a return to the disastrous days of Railtrack.
“Rail staff, who have been essential workers throughout the pandemic, have already had a kick in the teeth with an attempt to impose the Government’s pay freeze.
“Now they are threatened with the loss of thousands of jobs, accompanied by a drastic dilution of safety tasks, which will have catastrophic consequences for rail safety.
“I will be seeking an urgent meeting with the Transport Secretary, but in the meantime RMT has no alternative to move to a national dispute footing to protect the livelihoods of our members and the lives of rail passengers and workers.”
RMT assistant general secretary Mick Lynch said he had been told about the planned cuts in meetings with NR officials.
He said: “We will have to respond. We are now going to a dispute footing and will get our members revved up to fight job cuts and any move to cut back on maintenance.”
Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said: “Outdated practices and the impact of Covid on passenger numbers show that the railway is not serving passengers, taxpayers or staff as well as it should.
“That’s why we want to work constructively with the unions to create an industry fit for the 21st century that is genuinely safe, efficient and effective for everyone.
“I hope the unions will recognise and embrace the need to modernise and will work with us to improve Britain’s rail network.”
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association said that along with other rail unions it is involved in discussions at the Rail Industry Recovery Group (RIRG) regarding the shape of the rail industry post-pandemic.
The talks began earlier this year and are at a detailed and ongoing stage, said the union, adding that Network Rail’s chief executive on Friday sent an email to staff raising the prospect of changes which are yet to be agreed.
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: “The RIRG is an initiative which is supported by the Government, the Department for Transport and employers including Network Rail.
“Frankly, these discussions need to be concluded before we can start discussing any company specific proposals as we need industry-wide assurances on a number of issues, including job security for our members. So today’s announcement is really in bad faith.
“Sadly, it appears Network Rail have jumped the gun.
“Our response is clear – we aren’t looking for a dispute, but if you don’t back off from putting in place proposals that will result in job losses before we have secured agreement on measures to protect our members, you will get an almighty one.”
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “Throughout the pandemic we have invested billions to support the rail industry and protect jobs. We will continue to do so.
“All parties must work together to deliver a more modern, efficient and effective workforce that ensures our railways are sustainable for the future.”