UK rail strikes again last weekend as public indifference grows
The United Kingdom’s rail network faced another wave of crippling strikes as negotiations between railway unions and the employers remained at an impasse. In the face of a weary but indifferent public, the latest round of strikes left the passenger network in England without trains over the first weekend in September and disrupted travel for thousands of passengers. The ongoing dispute over pay, working conditions, and the controversial decision to close a significant number of station ticket offices continues.
In a new development, Network Rail, the agency responsible for maintaining and operating the UK’s rail infrastructure, has triggered outrage among its staff by withholding annual bonuses from those who participated in recent industrial action. The dispute, which revolved around issues such as pay, job security, and working conditions, was settled in March when union members agreed to a nine per cent pay increase. However, Network Rail has chosen not to award bonuses to employees who engaged in strikes from June 2022 onwards, resulting in potential losses of around 300 pounds (360 euro) per affected staff member.
RDG responds and no NR bonus
The only development in what is now the longest running dispute in the history of the railway sector has been an inflammatory one. No annual bonus for Network Rail staff who took part in any strike action. “Our position was made very clear”, said a Network Rail spokesperson.“Any discretionary payments would focus on those who continued to support rail services during industrial action.” In the past, eligible Network Rail employees have received bonuses of up to one thousand pounds, but this year’s award is expected to be significantly lower at approximately three hundred pounds due to the impact of industrial action on the company’s performance.
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators across the UK, responded to the recent strike action by the drivers’ union ASLEF (who walked out on Friday 1 September and refused to work overtime on Saturday 2 September), criticising the union’s leadership for their stance. The spokesperson expressed concerns about further disruption to passengers, especially during events and the end of the summer holidays. RDG say they have offered an increase in the average driver base salary, raising it from £60,000 (€70,000) to nearly £65,000 (€75,000) by the end of this year.
However, the offer is contingent on several reforms which the RDG say are necessary to address the financial challenges facing the rail industry. “We urge the ASLEF leadership to acknowledge the substantial financial challenges facing the rail industry and work with us to achieve a more dependable and robust railway system for the future,” said a statement from the RDG.
Now it’s about ticket offices
Strikes and overtime bans disrupted services at fourteen train operating companies across England, with cross-border services to Scotland and Wales also affected. Domestic services administered by the governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff were not involved. The strikes were fuelled by several factors, including demands for better pay that reflects the rising cost of living. While the UK inflation rate recently dipped below ten per cent, the rail industry is under pressure to reduce costs following the financial strain caused by the pandemic. The industry contends that changes to working practices are necessary for pay increases, but unions remain dissatisfied with many of these proposed changes.
Neither side is in the mood to talk, with the major point of contention being that the employers say their offer to the RMT union has not been put to the membership. Rather than soothing the open wounds, the government’s intention to close the majority of station ticket offices in England has inflamed tensions. Half a million UK citizens signed a petition opposing this move. Needless to say, the proposals do not aligned with the desires of railway staff. The lack of resolution in this matter further complicates the ongoing dispute. The current series of strikes does not involve rail freight operations and excludes staff in Scotland and Wales, where agreements have been reached with the devolved governments.