Rail unions told: ‘Take deal now to end train strike misery’

Travellers at King’s Cross station on Friday  (PA)
Travellers at King’s Cross station on Friday (PA)

Striking unions were on Friday urged by the rail minister to accept a pay offer and end “counter-productive” walkouts that risk permanently driving passengers away from the railways.

Huw Merriman warned that commuters were “giving up on rail” and called on Aslef and the RMT to accept a “fair and reasonable” offer that would take train driver salaries to about £65,000.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, he said the radical option of bypassing collective bargaining and imposing the pay rise – of nine per cent over two years – was something the train firms “may well end up looking at”.

His call was backed by commuters, who urged the unions to “do the right thing” and accept the pay deal, saying the strikes were making their lives a misery.

There were no services on some of the capital’s busiest commuter networks on Friday – including Thameslink, Southern and Southeastern – and no Heathrow Express or Gatwick Express trains as drivers belonging to Aslef went on strike for the ninth time since last July, with 16 rail firms affected.

Avanti West Coast was unable to run any trains on the West Coast Main Line, the “backbone” of the UK rail network.

Tomorrow, train and station staff belonging to the RMT will take action across 14 firms. This is not expected to be as disruptive but many services – including parts of the Elizabeth line, the country’s busiest railway - will start later and finish earlier.

On the Southeastern network, less than a third of stations will be open. There will also be disruption on some parts of the District line and London Overground.

Avanti will on Saturday operate an hourly service to Liverpool, which is hosting the Eurovision song contest, but the last trains will leave around 4.30pm.

Huw Merriman (AFP via Getty Images)
Huw Merriman (AFP via Getty Images)

Further Aslef strikes are planned for Wednesday May 31 and Saturday June 3 – the day of the FA Cup final at Wembley between Manchester City and Manchester United.

Mr Merriman said: “The message to the railway unions is: this is the best offer that is available to your members. The best thing to do is take it now, so they have got the pay rise, and we can move on and start building the railways and getting more people using them.

“For those of us who support the railway and want to see it thrive, it’s disappointing. It encourages people to work from home rather than take the train. It impacts on hospitality and retail. It has a big impact not just on rail revenues but the wider economy.

“It’s really important if we are going to get people on rail, if we are going to get rail to sustain itself, so we can maintain the timetable and maintain the jobs, that we maximise revenues. We can only do that by giving passengers confidence that their service will operate. The union action is actually counter-productive towards good, secure jobs.

“The difficulty is where it causes passengers to give up on rail because they can’t rely on it. If they do that, it means alternative methods, not just of working but of travelling – and that means the car.”

Mr Merriman pointed out that RMT members at Network Rail had already accepted a similar pay deal. He urged the unions to allow their members to vote on the offer.

“We believe they are good rises and the workforce deserves a rise as well,” he said. “We just can’t get it put to them.”

Asked if the Government was prepared to impose a deal, Mr Merriman said: “That ultimately will have to be a matter for the employers – the train operators – but that will be one of the options they may well end up looking at.”

Last September the Port of Felixstowe imposed a pay rise after a year of talks broke down. This brought strikes to an end. The bus company Abellio also imposed a pay rise in January to end more than 20 days of strikes in south-west London.

The Government is also aiming to pass legislation this year requiring a “skeleton service” to operate on strike days, Mr Merriman confirmed.

At Euston on Friday morning, the only trains running were London Overground services to Watford Junction.

Clive Turner, 58, an office manager, said: “I was hoping to great a train to the East Midlands but there’s nothing doing. The unions need to do the right thing and accept a deal, but they are not even putting it to their members which seems churlish. They are losing any goodwill they had.

“People will stop using the trains because they can’t be relied on. It’s self-harm by the rail workers in a way because people will stop paying the ridiculously high fares if they cannot even rely on there being a train.”

Hugo Tobin, 31, a surveyor, said: “The damage to the economy is shocking. After the pandemic people have been starting to go back to the office but the strikes are making that difficult. People I know are changing their routines away from train travel because of the unreliability. In the past I would have got a train to see a client but now I’ll just go in zoom.”

Student Keira Duffy, 21, said: “I work part time in London to help pay my way at college. Getting to and from work is becoming a nightmare. Sometimes I have had to take cabs on part of the journey which is wiping out my pay.

“I think people have had some sympathy with the strikers but they are making working life a misery for some. They need to negotiate a deal now, people are losing patience.”

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan the pay offer was “risible and obviously unacceptable” and blamed “companies in league with the Government” for failures to find a resolution to the dispute.

Speaking on the Today programme, he said: “Having demonised train drivers for so long, having a settlement when you’ve got nurses and teachers and other people out on strike might be difficult for them.”