The boss of Britain’s train drivers’ union has warned that his members are prepared to continue strike action into the winter in a dispute over pay, ahead of another walkout that will lead to a weekend of severe disruption.
Aslef will shut down large parts of the rail network when it stages its second one-day strike on Saturday at nine of the UK’s train operating companies.
Mick Whelan, the union’s general secretary, said he would hold the first talks next week with industry representatives from the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operating companies, as drivers push for a pay rise to help them keep up with the rising cost of living
But he warned that his members, who are taking their first national industrial action since 1995, were ready for the “long haul” and the dispute could last the rest of the year. “The people within the industry are saying we truly are discontented, we want you to do something about it,” he said.
Train operating companies have previously said any salary increases can only be funded by changes to working practices, such as making staff rostering more flexible by including Sunday shifts as part of the working week.
Steve Montgomery, chair of the RDG, who last week urged the union to begin talks, said: “The railway is too important to this country to allow it to decline, but with passenger revenue still 20 per cent below 2019 levels, securing a bright future means we have to change and move with the times. Only then can we fund the pay rise we want to give our people.”
Saturday’s strike by drivers will hit some of the busiest routes in Britain, with Avanti West Coast operating no services between London, the north-west of England and Scotland. Services from the capital into Kent and parts of East Sussex, operated by Southeastern, will also be suspended.
Other routes, including the east coast mainline and services between London and the west country, will have extremely limited services, the rail industry has warned.
Whelan said ending the dispute would depend on the government providing more funding to the industry to unlock a pay rise. “The first thing we need to address is the pay itself. Because until we address pay, talks about anything else don’t come to fruition,” he said.
“I believe it’s only the . . . government that can release the shackles. So we can talk as much as we want, but how much can be achieved if people aren’t actually allowed to bargain is limited,” Whelan added.
Ministers have refused to take part in negotiations with railway unions this summer, and said it was for the industry to negotiate within budgets set by government. The rail industry was effectively fully renationalised during the coronavirus pandemic when the state put all rail franchise operators on emergency contracts and assumed all financial risk.
Ministers have argued that after providing £16bn of public funding to keep services running during the pandemic there are other priorities for public spending.
The RMT and state-owned infrastructure operator Network Rail held informal talks on Thursday, the latest contact between the two sides in a months-long dispute over pay, possible job losses and changes to working practices. Network Rail has insisted that it cannot improve its pay offer, which includes a rise of 8 per cent over two years and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.