Train strikes to continue as drivers ‘raise profile’ for pay rise

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Train drivers will keep striking to “raise the profile” of their dispute after half a decade without a pay rise, the Aslef union has warned, before another week of rolling strikes across England.

Aslef’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, has said he believes that the government will make renewed efforts to see train companies use controversial new anti-strike laws, despite the union forcing a climbdown this time round.

An overtime ban will begin to disrupt services from Monday, before trains are halted for 24 hours at national train operators around England in rolling strikes from Tuesday.

Drivers will strike at Southeastern, Southern/Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Thameslink and South Western Railway on Tuesday 30 January; at Northern Trains and TPE on Wednesday 31 January; at LNER, Greater Anglia and C2C on Friday 2 February; at West Midlands Trains, Avanti West Coast and East Midlands Railway on Saturday 3 February; and at Great Western, CrossCountry and Chiltern on Monday 5 February.

No trains at all are likely to run at most operators on their respective strike days, with other services likely to be much busier where they provide alternative routes for passengers.

The set of strikes was expected to be the first test of the minimum service levels legislation, designed to allow train operators to run 40% of the normal timetable. Only LNER, one of the three operators directly run by the Department for Transport, planned to use the new powers to demand that drivers break the strike. An immediate escalation by Aslef, which called five additional days of strikes at LNER, prompted a climbdown.

Rail industry bosses as well as unions had made clear their reservations in consultations and select committee hearings ahead of the strike laws being introduced, which could also be applied in health, education and firefighters disputes. Labour has said it will immediately repeal the laws if elected.

Speaking before the latest industrial action, Whelan said: “We made the point that it was unworkable, we believed it was terribly unsafe. We made the point, which was borne out by the government’s own impact assessment, that it would lead to more strife. Rather than trying to resolve the situation, they tried to introduce forced labour into the country, to our eternal shame.

“First time they’ve tried it, they’ve backed off. I’m of the view they’ll try it again. Nobody can tell us how to safely do it.”

Separately, the Public and Commercial Services Union said on Saturday it would use the Human Rights Act to challenge the minimum service law. The announcement was made by the PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, at a rally to mark the 40th anniversary of the ban on trade unions at the GCHQ headquarters.

After the threatened extended rail strikes on the London-Newcastle-Edinburgh mainline, and potential for more elsewhere, the more localised 24-hour disruption of rolling walkouts may be a relief for passengers. However, given the lack of progress in more than 18 months of strikes, what does Whelan hope to achieve?

“Well, there are two choices in life – to do something or do nothing. And we don’t actually have the choice to do nothing,” he said.

“I’ve got drivers who in February [will] have gone five years without a pay deal – half a decade. People who put their lives at risk during a pandemic, to get other key workers to work and move food and medicine around the country.”

The strikes would, Whelan said, “keep raising the profile of our dispute until somebody comes to the table to resolve it with us. I’d happily go back into talks tomorrow to find a way forward – even though we’ve been crapped on from a great height twice before when we’ve gone into long-term talks.

“We’ve gone in in good faith, and at the end the Rail Delivery Group and the government behaved dishonourably and deceitfully. Still, we have to find a way to resolve it.”

An overtime ban starting on Monday will apply at all of the companies throughout the strike period. It is likely to cause additional disruption for operators such as TransPennine Express that rely on rest day working.

The RDG has advised passengers to check before they travel, while those who have to travel should expect disruption, plan ahead and check when their first and last train will depart.

A spokesperson for the RDG said: “There are no winners from these strikes that will unfortunately cause disruption for our customers. We believe rail can have a bright future, but right now taxpayers are contributing an extra £54m a week to keep services running post-Covid.

“Aslef’s leadership need to recognise the financial challenge facing rail. Drivers have been made an offer which would take base salaries to nearly £65,000 for a four-day week before overtime – that is well above the national average and significantly more than many of our customers that have no option to work from home are paid.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “The transport secretary and rail minister have already facilitated talks that led to this fair and reasonable offer from industry – Aslef bosses should put it to their members so we can resolve the dispute, which has already happened with the RMT, TSSA and Unite unions.

“With passenger revenues not having recovered since the pandemic, the taxpayer has had to prop up the railways with £12bn in the past year alone – these strikes will not change the need for urgent workplace reforms that Aslef continue to block.”