Rail strikes could force a generation off the trains

GMB: Panelists clash in debate on strikes

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Transport minister Huw Merriman will sit down tomorrow with union bosses and industry leaders in a bid to end the strikes.

The landmark talks come as ministers are reportedly considering making a key concession by dropping a demand for train drivers to operate carriage doors rather than guards.

And the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has offered Aslef a deal which would take the average driver’s salary from £60,000 to £65,000 by the end of the year.

It comes amid fears that passenger numbers will not return to prepandemic levels and that continued industrial action will endanger the future of the network.

The hospitality sector has also warned that the threat of strikes has stopped people booking hotels and entertainment any further than two weeks in advance.

And Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has been challenged by the SNP to derail Government plans to require key public services to maintain a “basic function” when workers strike.

A Government source said: “We want the rail system to thrive but not enough people have come back to the railways since Covid.

“Due to changes in working practices, business passenger numbers show no sign of getting back to where they were pre-pandemic.

“We need to get these pay and reform deals agreed for the rail- ways to have a sustainable future. If the unions keep going on strike, we risk a generation of people abandoning the railways.”

RMT leader Mick Lynch, who will attend today’s meeting, rejected pressure to accept reforms and accused the Government of engaging in spin, claiming train companies are still making millions in profits. The Government source insisted the transport secretary and the rail minister had been working to find a solution.

The source said: “We’re being fair, reasonable and want to deliver a settlement that works for rail workers, passengers and taxpayers.”

Talks with the RMT are understood to be further advanced than those with Aslef.

But yesterday Mr Lynch – who will also face Westminster’s transport select committee on Wednesday – claimed that private train companies are on course to make profits of more than £400million by September.

He said: “While the Secretary of State [Mark Harper] and the Rail Delivery Group spin about the need for reform to fund pay rises, the truth is the money was always there. But it has been salted away by a gang of profiteers and their mates in the Government.

“It’s outrageous that the interests of workers, passengers and the taxpaying public are all sacrificed to the greed of a handful of private transport companies who are being guaranteed profits when they can’t run a railway even when we’re not on strike.”

A spokesman for the RDG, which brings together Network Rail and rail firms, hit back, saying: “This figure is not based in reality. The strikes over the festive period and last week will have taken well over £300million out of the railway in lost revenue.

“Far from making profits the railway is losing money at a frightening rate, risking the long-term future of the industry. The only people responsible for that are the leaderships of the rail unions.”

Conservative transport select committee member Greg Smith warned that the RMT is “leaving the country and the future of the railway in a perilous position”.

Saying strikes are driving people away from trains, he added: “It means the railways won’t get the fare revenue that means they can survive and provide the services people want to see, which ultimately will mean job losses.”

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