Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
In the increasingly unlikely event that you were planning a journey by rail this spring or summer, Mick Lynch has news for you. The general secretary of the RMT union has vowed his members will carry out “sustained and targeted industrial action over the next few months” in their long and bitter dispute with Network Rail and train operators over pay, job security and working arrangements.
After what Mr Lynch calls an “in-depth consultation of our 40,000 members,” the RMT has rejected the latest offer from Network Rail and the train operators and instead announced four more days of walk-outs and weeks of overtime bans aimed at wrecking millions more rail journeys.
“The message we have received loud and clear is to reject these dreadful offers,” says Mr Lynch. Note that the union leadership thing not to ask members actually to demonstrate how dreadful they thought it was in a referendum.
The general secretary says: “Our members are fully prepared to fight tooth and nail for a negotiated settlement in the months ahead.”
The next round of stoppages begins on Thursday 16 March with a national strike by workers at both Network Rail and the train operators which are contracted by the Department for Transport.
The intention is to knock out most services across Great Britain. Crucially, signaling staff working for Network Rail will walk out, reducing the nation’s railway to a rump of some intercity lines and commuter routes.
Which, as I have previously written, is roughly how the “permanent way” of the railway may permanently look when this debilitating series of strikes is finally concluded. I hope I am proved incorrect, but right now it looks like an incredible shrinking rail industry.
“Unconditional” is a useful word when defining a parent’s love for a child. It is also describes the only kind of deal the RMT will now accept.
The union is demanding “an unconditional pay offer, a job security agreement and no detrimental changes being imposed on members’ terms, conditions and working practices”. And to back it up, workers for the 14 train operators are also striking on 20 and 30 March as well as 1 April – All Fools’ Day.
Negotiators on both sides of the table must be feeling rather foolish. They had been under the strong impression that they were haggling over a conditional offer. The deal hammered out between employers and union representatives a month ago involved all kinds of reforms, from closing station ticket offices to making Sunday working mandatory.
Tea Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, is furious at the RMT’s new insistence on a no-strings deal. A spokesman says: “No employer who has lost 20 per cent of its revenue could accept those terms.”
The union is betting that the government will underwrite the rail industry’s increasing losses. But the transport secretary, Mark Harpersay the railway is effectively a busted flush and that any rescue depends on “modernizing working practices”.
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, calls it right when he predicts “a long and drawn out dispute with no obvious end in sight”.
This is now a war of attrition that passengers, rail workers and taxpayers will all lose.