The head of the UK train drivers’ union has warned of “massive” disruption this summer as his members vote on their first national strike since 1995, with walkouts over pay set to compound Britain’s travel chaos.
The ballot on industrial action from Aslef, which represents drivers, coincides with a similar vote by staff in stations and ticket offices who belong to the TSSA. These follow last month’s strike by the RMT which brought British rail travel close to a standstill.
With protesters blocking parts of the motorway network on Monday over high fuel prices, the prospect of new rail strikes over pay is further evidence of the disruption caused by rising inflation.
Aslef is balloting drivers at 10 train companies, with the first results due next week. “It will be far more disruptive than it has been in the past. We do not go on strike very often,” Mick Whelan, general secretary of drivers’ union Aslef, told the Financial Times.
With staff at three companies having already voted to strike, Whelan said it was “likely” that walkouts would be co-ordinated, in effect leading to the first national drivers’ strike since 1995. “We believe [strikes] will have a massive effect,” he said, adding: “There will be a summer of disruption.”
Whelan said staff had been offered a pay rise of 2 per cent plus money saved from productivity gains, such as changes to shift patterns. The union wants an increase close to inflation, which is projected to hit 11 per cent by October.
There are very limited contingency plans to replace striking drivers. Two industry executives said if drivers at all companies walked out simultaneously, the network would run less than 10 per cent of normal services.
The TSSA is also threatening action, with results from ballots at 10 train operators and Network Rail due in the next two weeks.
Staff at Avanti West Coast voted “overwhelmingly” in favour of industrial action in a dispute over pay, job security and conditions last week, with Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, warning ministers to “take note” as the result was “only the beginning”.
The RMT will meanwhile restart talks to avert further strikes with Network Rail and 13 train operating companies next Monday.
Whelan denied that the three unions would co-ordinate strikes. However, the large number of ballots sent out across the industry means some senior rail executives are resigned to a summer of escalating disruption.
The government is threatening new “minimum service agreements”, which would mean that a certain number of services would have to be maintained in the event of a strike. But ministers have said it would take months to draw up this legislation.
At the same time transport secretary Grant Shapps is keen to introduce a new law that would make it harder for unions to strike unless they adhere closely to the wording of their initial ballot.
‘We want to see rail unions engage fully with their employers, instead Aslef are first seeking to cause further misery to passengers by joining others in disrupting the rail network,” the government said.
“The rail industry is in desperate need of modernisation to make it work better for passengers and be financially sustainable for the long term.”
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With the railway on the brink of more strikes, parts of Britain’s road network were on Monday hit by slow-moving roadblocks from protesters complaining about the soaring cost of fuel.
Police arrested 12 people following a protest on the M4, while demonstrations were also reported on roads in England including the A12, M5, M54 and in Scotland.
The action represents the most visible backlash yet against the soaring cost of fuel, carrying echoes of the “gilets jaunes” protests in France after being organised organically on social media.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak in March cut duty on fuel by 5p a litre, but that has had little impact.
The RAC called on retailers to cut the cost of petrol by 5p a litre after its price hit a new record of 191.53p a litre, while diesel remained on the brink of £2.
“While we respect the right to protest, people’s day-to-day lives should not be disrupted,” the government said.