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Ever since the inception of nationwide rail strikes in the summer of 2022, an immense number of trips have been called off. The UK economy has suffered a loss of billions of pounds, with hospitality establishments being hit the hardest. Additionally, taxpayers are footing a hefty bill of £90 per second to support a deteriorating and undependable railway, on top of the usual subsidy.
Following the most recent strike by train operators who are members of the Aslef labor union, it is inevitable that there will be further walkouts in the future.
In the last 19 months, there has been no advancement in the conflict between Aslef and the 14 rail companies managed by the UK government and represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).
According to a quick survey on social media conducted by The Independent, out of 2,142 participants, one third of passengers claim they will decrease their travel permanently once the industrial action ends.
At the same time, there are sporadic instances of other strikes occurring, as London Overground employees get ready to go on strike. The RMT has announced two separate 48-hour strikes for February and March on the commuter network in the capital.
Here are the essential inquiries and responses.
What is the current status of the railway’s industrial action?
Numerous train travelers may perceive that national strikes have been ongoing for a long time. However, it was not until the summer of 2022 that the first national rail walkouts occurred since the 1980s.
The RMT, the bigger union for rail workers, has stopped their strikes temporarily. However, Aslef, the smaller but more influential union for train drivers, is still at odds with the 14 English rail companies that are under government control.
As a result of the disagreement, Aslef has initiated frequent strikes and prohibited work on rest days. The most recent industrial protest by train operators, involving a ban on overtime and staggered regional walkouts, lasted for a total of nine days from January 29th to February 6th.
The objective of the ongoing strikes and prohibition of working on rest days is to create significant disruption while minimizing financial losses.
What is the total cost of all the disturbance?
Based on the RDG, the rail industry has incurred a loss of approximately £775m in revenue from industrial action between June 2022 and mid-January 2024. This amount does not factor in the recent strikes, which likely resulted in an additional £50m loss.
UKHospitality estimates the lost business for places to eat, drink and stay amounts to almost £5bn. Kate Nicholls, the organisation’s chief executive, says: “Ongoing strike action hurts businesses, prevents people from getting to work and significantly erodes confidence in the rail network.”
Furthermore, there is an incalculable decrease in profits due to passengers who have adapted their daily routines or switched to other modes of transportation; companies that have ceased travel and have turned to online communication instead; and individuals reducing their travel due to the uncertainty of the situation.
What is the source of the conflict?
Train operators are requesting a pay raise without any conditions, claiming that certain members of Aslef have gone without an increase for five years. However, the government argues that any salary increase, even a small one, is dependent on significant alterations to established work agreements in order to decrease expenses. According to government data, the railway currently receives a subsidy of nearly £250 per second from taxpayers, which is 43 percent higher than usual.
Due to the pandemic, there have been shifts in travel habits. Ticket sales are currently at around 20% lower than before Covid. The Department for Transport will approve any agreement as taxpayers will ultimately cover the cost of train drivers’ salary increase. Officials believe that the terms and conditions of train drivers are contributing to the issue.
In order to reduce expenses, they must agree to alterations in their work practices, including incorporating Sundays into the work week across all locations. The union strongly opposes this proposal. The train drivers are willing to discuss these changes, but only after receiving a fair and unconditional increase in their pay, which currently averages at £60,000 per year. They are confident that the necessary funds will be provided to meet their demands, as it has always been the case in the past. In addition, they have consistently negotiated for additional compensation in exchange for accepting reforms to their work arrangements, and they do not plan on changing this strategy.
The passenger is stuck in the middle.
Which railway companies are involved?
Aslef is currently engaged in a disagreement with the train companies that have been contracted by the government to offer railway services. These companies include:
Avanti West Coast
East Midlands Railway
is a British railway company that operates the Great Western Main Line.
GWR is a British rail company that runs the Great Western Main Line.
Operators that provide transportation services for commuters in the southeastern region of England.
GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)
The South Western Railway system, which includes the Island Line on the Isle of Wight.
Operators with a focus on the Midlands and northern regions of England.
West Midlands Railway (including London Northwestern Railway)
Which companies are not participating?
ScotRail, Transport for Wales, Transport for London (which includes the Elizabeth Line), Merseyrail, and “open-access” operators like Grand Central, Hull Trains, and Lumo all experience high demand during times of industrial action. This can lead to overcrowding on routes that are already affected by strikes.
What are the opposing sides expressing?
Huw Merriman, the minister in charge of rail, stated to The Independent that they have presented a just and practical proposal to Aslef and encourage them to present it to their members. The train drivers in question earn an average of £60,000 for a 35-hour work week over four days. The proposed pay agreement would increase their earnings to £65,000.
A representative from the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, stated that the strikes will have no positive outcome and will unfortunately inconvenience our customers. We remain optimistic about the future of rail, but currently, taxpayers are providing an additional £54m per week to maintain services after the Covid pandemic.
The leaders of Aslef must acknowledge the financial difficulties in the rail industry. Rather than engaging in further strikes that cause harm, we urge the Aslef leaders to collaborate with us in finding a solution to this conflict. It is important to reach a fair agreement that benefits our workers and implements necessary changes to improve service reliability.
According to Mick Whelan, the head of Aslef, the proposed agreement is inadequate and he is unable to present it to his members. Some members have not received a salary increase in the past five years. Aslef members have consistently voted in favor of taking industrial actions to achieve their requests.
The union has not had any discussions with Mark Harper, the transport secretary, since 2022; with Huw Merriman, the rail minister, since January 2023; and with the employers since April 2023.
According to Mr. Whelan, the government has been given numerous chances to negotiate, but it has been a year since the Department for Transport has reached out. It is evident that they have no intention of resolving this conflict.
Currently, travelers are still losing trust in their ability to plan trips in advance, as rail passengers are only allowed to schedule journeys up to two weeks in advance due to the union’s requirement of a minimum notice for any potential strikes.
Can you provide information on the recently implemented minimum service levels legislation?
The new law permits the transportation secretary to set minimum service requirements (MSRs) for days affected by strikes, equivalent to 40% of the standard service. The government states that the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 intends to guarantee the availability of essential services for the public during strike events.
The train company has no intention of enforcing the new law on the union representing train drivers. LNER mentioned the possibility and began discussions, prompting Aslef to announce a five-day strike exclusively on LNER’s trains. However, the train company later stated that they would not force drivers to work, resulting in the cancellation of the strike.
The BBC has stated that the prime minister is unsatisfied with train operators for not following minimum service requirements. A spokesperson from Downing Street commented, “We and the public expect them to comply with these standards.”
“We have consistently stated that this legislation is accessible for train operators to utilize.”
The Transport Select Committee has previously cautioned about potential unintended outcomes of the law. The Conservative chair, Iain Stewart, stated: “There is a possibility that MSLs could negatively impact worker-employer relationships and ultimately lead to reduced reliability of services.”
The rules for minimum service levels do not pertain to union restrictions on working on non-contractual rest days. Therefore, there would be no advantage in enforcing this law during an overtime ban.
What is the cause of the London Overground strikes?
More than 300 members of the RMT union will participate in two 48-hour strikes on the London Overground, occurring on Mondays and Tuesdays that are two weeks apart: February 19-20, 2024 and March 4-5, 2024. The workers involved in the strike include security, station, revenue, and control staff.
The RMT reported that Arriva Rail London, the contracted operator for London Overground, has proposed a pay increase that does not keep up with inflation.
Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, stated that if the conflict cannot be resolved, the RMT is fully prepared to take continuous industrial action in order to secure a fair pay increase for London Overground employees.
The CEO of Arriva Rail London, Steve Best, informed The Independent: “We are confident that we have proposed a fair pay increase, not only in comparison to our own industry, but also to other industries and businesses in the UK. We are still dedicated to communicating with the RMT in hopes of finding a resolution to this conflict,” he stated.
In our current economic climate, it is crucial that we provide our employees with a reasonable and lasting salary increase. Our company is dedicated to providing fair compensation for our workers and ensuring their job stability in the long run.
He stated that they are implementing strong backup plans in case there is any strike, in order to protect the well-being and safety of their employees and clients.
What is the stance of the Labour Party?
Labour’s spokesperson for transport, Louise Haigh, expressed shock at the lack of action from the transport secretary in addressing the issue with unions since Christmas of the previous year.
“Labour will approach the situation with the Tories in a distinct manner and collaborate with both parties to come to an agreement that benefits passengers and workers. If the transport secretary adopted this logical approach, we may not have ongoing rail strikes.”
According to Stephen Morgan MP, the shadow rail minister, Labour plans to return the railways to public ownership when contracts expire in order to prioritize the needs of passengers.