Analysis: rail strikes approach decisive phase

Expiry of mandate in May raises stakes

Another week, another rail strike, with more planned on 18/30 March and 1 April. For hard-pressed passengers it surely feels like Groundhog Day in disputes between RMT members and Train Operating Companies which show no sign of ending soon.

There has been movement elsewhere: the RMT settled with ScotRail and TfW Rail, and is not in dispute with operators such as Merseyrail, London Overground and MTR Elizabeth line. It has put a pay offer to its Network Rail members in a separate dispute, and TSSA members have voted to accept offers too.

However, this dispute – which will soon have been running for a year – may be approaching a decisive phase. The RMT’s legal mandate for strike action expires in May and if no settlement is reached must be renewed if strikes are to continue.

The best outcome for all – not least passengers – is a settlement at the earliest opportunity. However, an invitation from the Rail Delivery Group which is leading TOC negotiations for talks came with a condition to suspend planned strikes. This was a condition the RMT felt it could not accept. After talks late last year were scuppered by what seems very clearly a Government intervention to impose nationwide Driver Controlled Operation on a deal without discussion, a degree of scepticism on the RMT’s part may be understandable.

No end in sight for strikes? West Midlands Trains Nos 170504/533 prepare to depart from Shrewsbury with the 12.41 to Birmingham.
No end in sight for strikes? West Midlands Trains Nos 170504/533 prepare to depart from Shrewsbury with the 12.41 to Birmingham. Philip Sherratt

There are significant outstanding issues to resolve beyond pay. The proposal to close virtually all ticket offices and give staff wider-ranging roles would be problematic for any union to accept even if technical issues could be resolved. That booking any remotely complex journey on station ticket machines is fraught with difficulty for even those who have a fair idea of the system and that closure of ticket offices would disproportionately affect those with disabilities, who are unfamiliar with the technology or who simply prefer to deal with a real human being is a separate issue.

Changes to terms and conditions and other roles present real challenges to resolve too. No rail staff Modern Railways has spoken to are in favour of the deal on the table as it stands, although this clearly doesn’t mean no staff are.


Mexican stand-off?

Something must give – but what? With the existing strike mandate running out, the stakes are rising for both sides ahead of a new ballot (assuming no settlement is reached before then). The RMT will want as strong a mandate as possible for strikes to pressure the Government – which must approve all pay deals – into further concessions. It may well be that even if the union’s leadership believed a deal was workable that its members would reject it, such is the strength of feeling on the railway at the moment.

Conversely, with a potential vote looming, train operators and the Government may be content to take a ‘wait and see’ approach and not offer any further concessions. The opportunity for further strikes within the existing mandate is waning, and operators and Government will hope that enough RMT members vote against strikes – whether through financial pressures or an acceptance of the offer on the table – to put it in a stronger position. It wouldn’t need to be a total rejection either: if members at half or slightly more of the operators (particularly the larger ones) voted against strikes, the TOCs and Government’s hand would be immeasurably strengthened. High stakes, but with a potentially big prize at the end for one side.


Untangling the knot

Perhaps a way forward is to separate out a pay settlement from wider-ranging reforms of roles and terms and conditions, as per the deal being voted on now by Network Rail. As the editorial in the April edition of Modern Railways (on sale Thursday, 23 March) notes, there are already too many distractions for management from the core job of running a reliable, punctual railway. Adding wide-ranging changes to staffing only amplifies that distraction from doing the day job. Government could retain the existing proposals for changes but allocate them to Great British Railways to implement when that body is formally created on the grounds that they will take considerable time to implement anyway while offering deals similar to those agreed on TfW Rail and ScotRail. Under that scenario, ‘face’ is kept on all sides, the strikes resolved before reaching their anniversary and policymakers, management and staff can get back to their core roles.

But as we have learned over the ten months, any prediction of what comes next in this long-running dispute is fraught with uncertainty. What we can say is that with passenger numbers hitting pre-pandemic levels in February despite strikes and major disruption on some operators there is clearly demand for rail. Quick settlement is vital to cement the recovery and grow revenue. Above all, confidence must return for passengers that they can make often long-planned journeys, for staff that their roles are valued, and for Government to invest. Those are perhaps the highest stakes of all.