Britain’s railways will grind to a near standstill on Saturday as transport unions begin a new wave of industrial action, with few signs of a breakthrough in the biggest dispute to hit the sector in a generation.
Passengers have been urged not to travel on Saturday unless necessary, with just one in 10 trains scheduled to run and no services at all across large parts of the country.
The walkouts will see more than 50,000 staff from the RMT, Aslef and Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association unions strike simultaneously, part of a long-running dispute over pay, working practices and possible job losses.
The action marks the start of a series of strikes that will take place over the next week, causing considerable disruption to people travelling to the Conservative party conference, which begins in Birmingham on Sunday.
Workers at the Aslef drivers’ union will stage another strike on October 5, before a second RMT strike on October 8.
Unions are pushing for pay rises to keep their workers’ salaries close to inflation, as well as guarantees of no compulsory redundancies or cuts to their terms and conditions.
The government, which sets the rail industry’s annual budgets, and train companies argue that they can afford to offer major pay rises only if they are funded through modernisation. That would involve sweeping changes to working patterns and practices to save money.
“Despite our best efforts to compromise and find a breakthrough in talks, rail unions remain intent on continuing and coordinating their strike action,” said Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines.
Unions and employers have held talks over the past few days, but there are no signs of an imminent breakthrough.
“We are still some way off,” said Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef.
The union is yet to receive a formal offer over a rise for this year from the 13 train operating companies with which it is in dispute.
Whelan said he was not confident any future offer would be “realistic”, adding: “If we have to escalate and call more strikes we will.”
Since the rail disputes began this summer, only one pay deal has been agreed, when a small number of TSSA members accepted a 4 per cent rise from Network Rail, which operates UK rail infrastructure.
RMT leaders have rejected Network Rail’s offer of an 8 per cent rise over two years, contingent on changes to working practices.
Whelan said he expected to hold more meetings with transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who he said had been “very personable” in her first meetings with unions this month.
Trevelyan’s decision to meet Whelan and other union bosses marked a break with the approach of her predecessor Grant Shapps, who refused meetings and insisted companies and unions resolve the row themselves.
Still, the change in approach has come as Liz Truss’s government has also vowed tough new legislation to curb strike action, including requiring unions to put pay offers to members during negotiations.
Separately, Royal Mail workers on Friday began a 48-hour walkout, while staff at Liverpool and Felixstowe ports are also on strike.