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Since the start of national rail strikes in the summer of 2022, countless trips have been called off. The UK economy has suffered billions of pounds in losses, with hospitality establishments being hit hard. Taxpayers are now footing the bill for a railway system that is becoming more run-down and undependable, at a rate of £90 per second in addition to the regular subsidy.
Following the recent strike by train operators who are members of the Aslef union, it is clear that there will be more disruptions in the future.
During the past 19 months of strikes, there has been no advancement in the disagreement between Aslef and the 14 rail companies under the control of the UK government, as represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).
According to a quick survey conducted by The Independent on social media, out of 2,142 participants, 33% stated that they will decrease their travel frequency permanently once the industrial action is resolved.
Other strikes are occurring sporadically, as London Overground employees get ready to go on strike. The RMT has announced two separate 48-hour strikes in February and March for the commuter network in the capital city.
These are the main inquiries and responses.
What is the current status of strikes in the railway industry?
Several train commuters may perceive that there has been a continuous occurrence of nationwide strikes. However, the reality is that the initial nationwide rail strikes since the 1980s started in the summer of 2022.
The RMT, the bigger rail union, has stopped their strike efforts for the time being. However, Aslef, the smaller but more influential union for train drivers, still has not reached a resolution with the 14 English rail companies that are under government control.
As the conflict started, Aslef has initiated frequent strikes and restrictions on working during rest days. The most recent protest by train operators, including a prohibition on overtime and staged regional walkouts, lasted for nine days between January 29th and February 6th.
The goal of these intermittent work stoppages and prohibition of working on rest days is to create the greatest amount of disturbance while minimizing financial impact.
What is the total cost of all the disturbance?
Based on the RDG, the railway industry has suffered a loss of approximately £775m in revenue due to industrial action between June 2022 and mid-January 2024. This estimate does not account for the additional losses caused by the latest strikes, which are likely to be around £50m.
UKHospitality has calculated that the financial impact on restaurants, bars, and accommodations due to the ongoing strikes is approximately £5 billion. Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the organization, expresses concern about the negative effects on businesses, commuters, and public trust in the railway system.
Moreover, there is an unpredictable decrease in income due to customers who have changed their daily habits or switched to other modes of transportation; companies that have ceased in-person meetings and are using virtual communication instead; and individuals reducing their travel plans due to the uncertainty.
What is the underlying cause of the disagreement?
Train operators are requesting a salary increase without any conditions attached. They claim that certain members of Aslef have not received a raise in five years. The government, however, is adamant that any pay raise, no matter how small, must come with significant changes to current work agreements in order to lower costs. According to government data, the railway is currently receiving a subsidy of almost £250 per second from taxpayers, which is 43 percent higher than usual.
Due to the pandemic, there has been a shift in travel trends. Ticket sales have decreased by approximately 20% compared to pre-Covid times. As taxpayers will ultimately cover the expenses for train operators’ salary increase, the Department for Transport will approve any agreement. Government officials view the terms and conditions of train operators as a contributing factor to the issue.
In order to reduce expenses, they must be willing to adapt their work methods, including incorporating Sundays as a regular work day. The union strongly objects to this. The train drivers are open to discussing these changes, but only if they receive a fair pay increase without any conditions, in addition to their current average salary of £60,000 per year. They are confident that the necessary funds will be allocated to meet their demands, as it has been done in the past. They have also traditionally agreed to changes in working conditions in exchange for a small percentage increase in pay, and they have no intention of changing this practice.
Trapped between two sides: the traveler.
Which companies are involved in the rail industry?
Aslef is currently in disagreement with the train operators who have been contracted by the government to offer rail services. These operators include:
Avanti West Coast
East Midlands Railway
is a British train operating company that runs passenger and freight trains between London, Oxford, Bristol, South Wales, and the West of England
GWR is a British railway company that provides transportation services for both passengers and freight between London, Oxford, Bristol, South Wales, and the West of England.
Operators of commuter trains in the southeastern region of England.
The transportation services available under GTR include Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, and Thameslink.
South Western Railway (including 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 included?
ScotRail, Transport for Wales, Transport for London (including the Elizabeth Line), Merseyrail and “open-access” operators such as Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo. But their services are crowded on days of industrial action, where they duplicate journeys of strike-hit companies.
What are the opposing factions stating?
According to The Independent, Huw Merriman, the minister in charge of rail, stated that an equitable and just proposal has been presented to Aslef. He encouraged them to present it to their members. The proposal pertains to train drivers who currently earn an average of £60,000 for a four-day, 35-hour work week. If accepted, the pay deal would increase their salary to £65,000.
A spokesperson from Rail Delivery Group, which speaks for the train companies, stated: “These strikes will result in inconvenience for our customers and no one will benefit. Although we have high hopes for the potential of rail, currently taxpayers are having to provide an additional £54m per week to maintain services after Covid.”
The leaders of Aslef must acknowledge the financial difficulties in the railway industry. Rather than causing further harm with strikes, we urge the Aslef leaders to cooperate with us in finding a solution to this disagreement. We aim to reach a fair agreement that both compensates our employees and implements necessary improvements for more dependable services.
However, Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, argues that the proposed agreement is inadequate and cannot be presented to his members. Some of them have not received a salary increase in five years. Aslef members have consistently voted in favor of taking industrial action to achieve their desired outcomes.
The labor union reports that there have been no discussions with Mark Harper, the secretary of transportation, since 2022; with Huw Merriman, the minister of railways, since January 2023; and with the employers since April 2023.
According to Mr. Whelan, the government has been given multiple chances to negotiate, but the Department for Transport has not been in touch for a year. This indicates that they are not interested in finding a resolution to the conflict.
Unfortunately, the trust in travelers has continued to erode as rail passengers are unable to schedule trips beyond two weeks in advance. This is due to the minimum notice of industrial action required by the union.
What is the updated minimum service levels law?
The new law permits the transportation secretary to set a minimum level of service (MSL) on days when there is a strike, requiring at least 40% of the regular service to be provided. The government states that the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act of 2023 intends to guarantee that the public can still use essential services during times of strike.
No train company is attempting to enforce the new regulation on the train drivers’ union. LNER mentioned the possibility of doing so and initiated discussions, prompting Aslef to announce a distinct five-day strike targeted solely at LNER. However, the train company then declared that it would not mandate drivers to work, resulting in the cancellation of the strike.
According to the BBC, the prime minister expressed disappointment that train operators did not follow minimum service requirements. A spokesperson from Downing Street stated, “We and the public expect them to adhere to 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 chair of the Conservative Party, Iain Stewart, stated: “There is a possibility that MSLs could harm the relationship between workers and employers, ultimately leading to less reliable services.”
The regulations for minimum service levels do not pertain to union restrictions on working on non-contractual days off – therefore, there is no advantage in enforcing the law during an overtime ban.
What is the reason for the London Overground strikes?
Over 300 members of the RMT union will participate in two 48-hour strikes on the London Overground, occurring on Mondays and Tuesdays two weeks apart: February 19-20, 2024 and March 4-5, 2024. Workers involved include security, station, revenue, and control employees.
The RMT announced that Arriva Rail London, the contractor for London Overground, has proposed a pay offer below the inflation rate.
According to Mick Lynch, the general secretary of RMT, if this conflict cannot be resolved, RMT is fully prepared to engage in long-term industrial action in order to secure a fair pay increase for London Overground employees.
Steve Best, the manager of Arriva Rail London, stated to The Independent that they have proposed a fair increase in wages, not just in comparison to our own industry, but also to other industries and companies in the UK. He also mentioned their dedication to communicating with the RMT in hopes of finding a resolution to this conflict.
Due to ongoing financial constraints, it is crucial that we provide our employees with a reasonable and lasting pay raise. Our priority is to ensure fair compensation for our staff while also safeguarding their job stability in the long run.
He stated that they have established strong backup plans in case there is a strike, in order to guarantee the well-being and protection of their employees and clients.
What is the stance of the Labour Party?
Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said: “It is a staggering dereliction of duty that the transport secretary hasn’t got around the table with the unions to try to resolve it since the Christmas before last.
“Labour’s approach differs greatly from that of the Tories, and they are willing to collaborate with both parties to come to a mutually beneficial agreement for passengers and workers. If the transport secretary adopted this logical approach, we may not still be facing strikes on our railways.”
The previous statement from Stephen Morgan MP, the shadow rail minister, stated that the Labour party plans to return railway ownership to the public and prioritize services for the benefit of passengers, as contracts come to an end.