Storm clouds gather over UK rail strike 

Image: Denny Müller, Unsplash

The executive of the trades union RMT is scheduled to meet later today (Tuesday 7 June) with the country braced to expect the announcement of strike action later in the month. After an overwhelming vote returned by the membership in favour of action, the union is expected to call out its 40,000 members as early as 21 June – the earliest date that the union can legally start action.

While talks continue between the UK government and the RMT, there has been little indication that either side is ready to back down. The prospect of what would be an effective national rail strike for the first time in the privatisation era, has polarised opinion on both sides of the argument. What is not in doubt is that if action does go ahead it will cause widespread disruption to the rail network and the wider UK economy.

Bring the system to a halt

On 24 May, railway workers voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action across Network Rail and the passenger train operating companies. The ballot, with a turnout of 71 per cent, returned 89 per cent in favour of strike action. Although the ballot was confined to members working with English-based passenger train operating companies, members working with Network Rail were balloted across Great Britain. Since the Network Rail staff have responsibility for infrastructure and safety duties – including signalling – any strike could potentially bring the whole system to a halt.

Although grabbing the headlines, the RMT are not alone. Other disputes are available. The union ASLEF, which represents train drivers, has been on bad terms with ScotRail for a protracted period, and the switch to public ownership has done little to warm up that relationship. The bad blood between the government in Edinburgh and the union has at least been partly responsible for the severely reduced timetable ScotRail has introduced. For its part, the RMT has several other live actions. For example, the passenger operator TransPennine Express, which connects many important cities in Central Scotland and the North of England saw a walk out at the weekend, and Transport for London faced a strike on the Underground yesterday, less than a week after celebrating the opening of the Elizabeth Line.

Biggest losers will be freight operators

RMT has called for action on behalf of its members over widely publicised plans at Network Rail to reduce what the union has branded ‘safety critical’ staff in many disciplines. They say NR plans to make redundant about 3,500 staff in maintenance and signalling professions. Network Rail does have a long-term plan to radically modernise the way the railway network is controlled, by taking signalling into a handful of centralised control rooms. 

For the industry, the biggest losers in any strike action could well be freight operators. While relations have at times been sharp, there was no ballot of members at freight operators. However, the obvious consequence of a national strike involving signalling and safety staff would mean all trains would be confined to depots. 

It is more than the industry that awaits with umbrellas at the ready for the outcome of todays stormy meeting at Unity House in London.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for and

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