Train drivers union says hope of solving rail strike soon is ‘zero’

The leader of the train drivers’ union told lawmakers that the chances of resolving the rail dispute are now “zero”.

Aslef’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, said his union and 14 train companies are farther than ever to reach an agreement on salary hikes.

His view was endorsed by the TSSA union, but RMT, which represents train crew, station staff, and beacons, backed out from a similarly pessimistic assessment of the state of its negotiations, which includes Network Rail.

By contrast, Network Rail chief negotiator Tim Shoveller said the chances of reaching an agreement with RMT are “seven out of 10”.

The Commons transport committee was questioning union leaders Wednesday morning, with Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the train companies, over the rail dispute that nearly brought the railroads to a standstill at Christmas and in the first week of 2023.

No new strike date has been set, but unions have warned that demonstrations could continue indefinitely if wages and working conditions are not agreed upon.

The cost of the strikes, in terms of lost government wage revenue, was set by Steve Montgomery, head of Rail Delivery Group, at “£300m to £500m”.

He also said at the hearing that 990 ticket offices were at risk of closing as part of longer-term cost-cutting plans.

Transportation committee chairman Iain Stewart asked union chiefs to rate the chances of a decision on a scale of one to 10, “in one you stay on different planets and at 10 I can go out and buy a hat for the wedding”.

Mr. Whelan replied: “I think you can suddenly include zero to 10 and we are further away than we started.”

“I wouldn’t object to that,” said Frank Ward, TSSA’s interim general secretary.

But Mr. Lynch said, “I couldn’t say. It’s all about discussion. I won’t use scale, but we don’t have an agreement and we’re not even close until we reach an agreement.”

Mr Whelan said a proposal from the Rail Delivery Group last Friday “smashed” an “probabilistic agreement” in place between the train companies and Aslef and jeopardized the likelihood of further negotiations being successful.

Talks between RMT, TSSA and the Rail Delivery Group will continue on Thursday. RMT met with Network Rail negotiators on Tuesday. Aslef will respond to the Rail Delivery Group next week.

Mr Lynch said at a time when comparative inflation was 14 percent, Network Rail had offered nine percent in two years and rail companies eight percent, saying the parties had “a long way to go” on salary.

But Mr Montgomery of Rail Delivery Group said it was “within reasonable areas” to reach an agreement with RMT, with similar hopes for talks with the TSSA.

He agreed with Aslef that he needed “more work” and “try to turn around the table”.

He warned that railways, which have not yet returned to pre-pandemic demand on weekdays, are at risk of losing passengers. “We’re seeing customer confidence decline in this industry.”

Mr Shoveller rated his chances of reaching an agreement with RMT as “seven” out of 10. Network Rail has already reached agreements with TSSA and Unite members.

He said 36 percent of RMT members voted in favor of accepting the payment offer. “I think you have every chance to achieve that with some carefully targeted discussion,” he said.

Mr Ward said TSSA members were able to accept a payment offer from Network Rail as it guaranteed an additional £1,750 to lower-paid workers, but a similar offer was made from train companies.

Mr Whelan said he only learned late last Friday that details of the Rail Delivery Group offer had been emailed to him at 3:18 p.m. – 20 minutes before he said it had been sent to the media.

He told the committee: “There is not a single line in that deal that I can recommend, from the opening comments to the last point.”

When asked how long the unions can sustain the conflict financially, Mr. Whelan said: “I have said many times that we are in this for the long term.

“Honestly I want to sort this out tomorrow… [but] we can sustain this for a very long time and financially for our members.

“I would turn the question around and ask how much more the Department of Transportation can afford to financially cover the losses incurred as a result, especially by train operating companies,” Mr. Ward said.

The dispute also includes the Government’s demands to modernize the railways.

RMT is also trying to “eliminate” ticket offices – which turned out to be at risk by 990 – and removing guards from trains, which Aslef also opposes – but many services are currently operating unprotected.

“We will not accept the driver-only operation,” said Mr. Lynch. [of trains] in any company without a fight. It’ll never happen when I’m the general secretary. It will never happen as long as RMT exists.”

Mr Whelan said train drivers “hate” driver-only operations because they believe it is “unsafe”, especially if train stations are unstaffed.

Mr Lynch said the dispute was “inherited” by former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, now Secretary of Commerce, who he suspects was “still in business” behind the scenes preventing a deal from being reached.

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