Shropshire Star

How did we get here? Timeline of rail strikes with little light at end of tunnel

It was said that Britain's rail bosses heaved a sigh of relief when Mick Lynch was elected leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union in May 2021.

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Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, joins union members on the picket line

Backed by his predecessor Mick Cash, Lynch was seen as the more moderate, responsible candidate compared to his rivals Steve Hedley, John Leach, and Gordon Martin. The Guardian even went so far as to describe him as a 'centrist' ­– a label he wasted no time in distancing himself from.

“The unions have got to make a militant stand, and use the strike weapon wherever it’s appropriate,” he said in one of his first interviews.

"At the moment we are warming up our members. We fully expect to be involved in industrial disputes this year on the railway.”

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union

Barring a rapid softening of positions, the national rail strike will enter its second year in just over three weeks' time.

Like so much that is affecting our day-to-day lives, the origins of the dispute can be traced back to the coronavirus pandemic, and the collapse in passenger numbers during lockdown.

With the franchised rail companies on the brink of ruin, the Government effectively nationalised them, temporarily relieving them of their franchises, at a cost of £16 billion to the taxpayer.

At the same time, passenger revenue fell to just £2 billion, and the Government instructed the companies to make savings.

Wolverhampton railway station deserted during the strike

Pay negotiations were ongoing, but the Government made it abundantly clear that they would be conditional on efficiency savings.

At the same time, the war in Ukraine had seen inflation rise from 5.5 per cent in February 2022, to 9.1 per cent by May, with gas and electricity prices most severely affected.

With a squeeze on the railways coming just as the cost of living crisis was about to bite, there was growing talk among a number of unions about a possible "Summer of Discontent".

The RMT held a ballot of 40,000 members on May 24, with 89 per cent voting in favour of strike action.

Members employed by three rail companies – Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern – actually voted against the strike.

But given that employees of Network Rail, the state-owned company which managed the lines and signalling, had voted to strike, a national shutdown looked inevitable.

Network Rail's chief executive, Andrew Haines, said the union had “jumped the gun”, and that strikes would be disastrous for the railway’s recovery.

“We know our people are concerned about job security and pay," he said. "As a public body we have been working on offering a pay increase that taxpayers can afford, and we continue to discuss this with our trade unions.

“The taxpayer has provided the industry with £16 billion worth of additional life support over the last two years and that cannot continue. Travel habits have changed forever and the railway has to change as well to adapt to this new reality.”

The near-empty car park Telford Central station during the rail strike

Then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps added: "The pandemic has changed travel habits, with 25 per cent fewer ticket sales and the taxpayer stepping in to keep the railways running at a cost of equivalent to £600 per household."

But the union said that for most staff pay had been frozen since 2020, and warned that 2,500 jobs were at risk as Network Rail sought to save more than £100 million a year by reforming maintenance work.

The first strikes, involving more than 40,000 rail workers, were announced for June 21, 23 and 25, disrupting rail services for the entire week, and coinciding with the Glastonbury Festival, which attracted more than 200,000 revellers to Somerset.

Last-ditch talks were held on June 20, but collapsed when Network Rail told the union it was about to consult its workforce on 1,800 redundancies.

Talks between the RMT and Network Rail resumed on June 30, with union leaders warning of further strikes if Network Rail pressed ahead with its redundancy plans. The union repeated its position that it would not tolerate any compulsory redundancies. The same day, the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA) announced that its members at Avanti West Coast had voted overwhelmingly to strike, adding that it would also be balloting its members at Network Rail and other train operators.

The action was stepped up on July 11 when members of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef), joined the strike. While the RMT largely represents on-board, signal and ground workers, and the TSSA clerical staff, Aslef is the main union for train drivers.

Network Rail offered a fresh pay offer, which it said was worth more than five per cent, but depended on workers accepting 'modernising reforms'. The RMT described the offer as 'paltry', and announced a fresh wave of strikes, adding that it would be talking with the other rail unions.

Members of three rail unions and supporting trades unionists gathered at Shrewsbury railway station

On July 22, Mr Lynch said: "Strike action will take place next Wednesday as planned and our members are more determined than ever to secure a decent pay rise, job security and good working conditions. "

He said neither Network Rail, nor the private operators, had offered anything new in their latest proposals.

“In fact Network Rail have upped the ante, threatening to impose compulsory redundancies and unsafe 50 per cent cuts to maintenance work, if we did not withdraw our planned strike action."

He particularly objected to 'driver-only' trains, without guards, and accused the company of ransacking his members' terms and conditions. He accused the Government of interfering in the negotiations.

“We will not be bullied or cajoled by anyone," he said.

"The Government need to stop their interference in this dispute so the rail employers can come to a negotiated settlement with us.”

The fourth day of RMT strike action went ahead on July 27, with 5,000 Aslef members staging their own strike three days later, affecting three rail companies including West Midlands Trains. These strikes were timed to coincide with the Commonwealth Games, which was being held in Birmingham, and the opening day of the English Football League season on July 30. By this time, the "Summer of Discontent" was in full swing.

Another RMT strike went ahead on August 18, with Network Rail signal workers from England, Scotland and Wales also joining the industrial action. Also, RMT members in London planned a separate 24-hour strike on August 19, affecting the majority of services which passed through the capital. The RMT's sixth nationwide strike went ahead on August 20.

There was some small respite for Network Rail on August 5, with the TSSA voting to accept a four cent pay deal, at least allowing for a skeleton staff on strike days. This did not end the union's dispute with the independent rail operators, though.

The action intensified over the summer, with all three unions organising strikes on various days.

In August, 2022, Shapps said a revised pay deal worth eight per cent was on the table, and accused union leaders of failing to put this to their members. On August 20, during the RMT's sixth day of strike action, Mr Shapps urged the union to accept what he described as a 'fair' deal.

"People feel that this ongoing unnecessary strike action is a kick in the teeth to workers who cannot get to their own jobs now," he said.

But the RMT's Mick Lynch rejected these claims, saying that the offer applied to "only half the people in this dispute".

He branded the proposed figure 'puny', and claimed it would apply over three years, and said members were not ready to accept it.

"I'll be talking to senior executives in the industry all through next week trying to create solutions to these problems and then we'll decide whether we need to take more industrial action – but I've got to say that it's very likely given the gap between us at this time."

The death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8 led to the suspension of strikes by both Aslef and the RMT which had been planned for the following week.

However, any hopes that this temporary truce – and a change of government, with Boris Johnson making way for Liz Truss – would lead to a thawing of relations were dashed on September 22, with the announcement of the biggest walk-out to date. The strike, planned for October 1, would see 54,000 members of the RMT, Aslef, the TSSA, and now Unite, all down tools at the same time. The RMT declared that it was 'effectively shutting down the railway network'. Another strike was held on October 8. Miss Truss, the new Prime Minister, called on union members to "get back to work".

An empty platform at Telford Central Station during the strike

The dispute continued into the autumn, outliving Miss Truss's brief premiership which came to an end on October 25.

In a sign of further escalation, the RMT announced a series of four 48-hour strikes over the Christmas and New Year period, with a further 36-hour strike starting on Christmas Eve. Aslef also announced a new strike on January 5, between two RMT strikes.

It appeared a breakthrough might have finally been reached on March 7 when RMT staff working for Network Rail halted their strike to consider a fresh pay offer. Members voted 76-24 in favour of accepting the new deal, which would see pay levels rise by up to 14.4 per cent for the lowest paid workers, and 9.2 per cent for the highest paid.

This effectively ended the dispute with Network Rail, but hopes that it might mark the beginning of the end of the dispute in its entirety looks a little optimistic. Indeed, the dispute with the rail operators has proved a much harder nut to crack.

The latest pay offers from the Rail Delivery Group were rejected by both the RMT and Aslef last month with a fresh round of strikes announced. This will see Aslef drivers walk out today and again on Saturday. Without the Network Rail workers downing tools, these strikes are likely to be less disruptive than previous ones, but they will have a big impact nevertheless.

And there still seems to be little, er, light at the end of the tunnel.

Union leaders have accused the Rail Delivery Group of changing the terms of its pay offer, a claim denied by the group which says it has been 'blindsided' by the latest wave of strikes.

The RDG claims that its offer has been vetoed by the RMT's more militant executive committee. The train operators and Government have demanded that its latest pay offer should be put to a ballot of members.

It is believed there have been some informal discussions between the industry and the union. But Mr Lynch's call for a summit with the Government was met with a blunt repost from the Rail Delivery Group that the only summit the RMT needed was "between its negotiating team and its executive committee".

The dispute with Aslef looks, if anything, to be even more entrenched. Which is worrying news, as without drivers, there cannot be any trains.