Are train drivers going to prolong the UK rail strikes?

After more than six months of strikes causing misery for passengers, sealing a pay deal with Britain’s 22,000 train drivers has emerged as the biggest barrier to ending the industrial action on the railways.

Drivers union Aslef warned this month of “irreparable damage” to negotiations with train companies as it announced new strikes and rejected their offer of an 8 per cent pay rise over two years, tied to significant workplace reforms.

The deterioration in relations comes amid growing hopes for a separate pay deal between employers and the traditionally more militant RMT union representing other rail workers — and means train drivers could be left as the last set of strikers in the industry.

The slow progress is partly procedural: the dispute between Aslef and train companies began months later than with the RMT. But it also reflects drivers’ determination to hold out given Aslef’s long history of winning high pay deals.

“Members are very, very angry and very focused,” Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan told the Financial Times. “They think we are not going hard and fast enough.”

Whelan said the deal offered by the train companies represented an effort to “rip up our terms and conditions in return for a real-terms pay cut”.

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan: ‘Members are very, very angry and very focused. They think we are not going hard and fast enough’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

The rail strikes have coincided with a wave of industrial action across the public and private sectors, involving ambulance paramedics, nurses and postal staff, as workers demand higher pay during the cost of living crisis. Inflation stood at 10.5 per cent in December.

Train and tram drivers in the private sector have historically earned well above median UK pay, according to Financial Times analysis of official data.

While workers in several industries facing industrial action have seen a sustained fall in their real-terms pay, train and tram drivers were only recently hit.

Their median pay increased by 16.5 per cent after adjusting for inflation between 2011 and 2021 — which covers much of the period of austerity when public sector workers’ wages were squeezed. Train and tram drivers’ pay fell by 7.6 per cent between 2021 and 2022 amid surging inflation.

There is widespread respect within the rail industry for Aslef, and the union negotiated a string of significant pay rises in exchange for modernising working practices as passenger numbers rose after the privatisation of the railways in 1994.

“When the railways were privatised, we identified very quickly that drivers were the key asset,” said Graham Eccles, a veteran industry executive and the former chief operating officer for rail at transport company Stagecoach.

“If you put the industry in a corner then people would probably admit we have overpaid drivers . . . but the minute you start losing drivers you can’t run a service.”

When Aslef members on train operator Southern agreed to end a long-running dispute with management over whether drivers or guards should operate carriage doors in 2017, they did so in exchange for a 28.5 per cent pay rise over five years, at a time when inflation stood at 2.8 per cent. “With Aslef it is always about the money,” said Eccles.

With private companies liable for the loss of passenger revenue on strike days, it was often cheaper to reach a deal with Aslef, according to several current and former industry executives.

But this calculation changed as the rail franchise system was swept away in March 2020 and the government stepped in to assume financial risk when passenger numbers plunged due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Train operators were moved on to fixed fees to run services, and companies lost the ability to negotiate their own pay deals as the government set the terms of any rises.

The industry estimates it has lost £480mn in fare revenue since the first rail strikes began in June. Rail minister Huw Merriman conceded it would have been cheaper to offer the unions high pay rises than to swallow the loss of revenue on strike days.

But he said the wider reform package on the table was “vital” to the railways given the uncertain financial future — which is partly rooted in a reference to how commuters are using trains less following the pandemic as they persist with working from home at least some of the time.

Avanti train parked up during strike action
An Avanti train at Euston station during industrial action. The industry estimates it has lost £480mn in fare revenue since the strikes began in June © Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

With the industry facing an annual financial black hole of about £2bn on top of the revenue lost on strike days, ministers have insisted that pay rises must be financed through productivity gains.

The modernisation proposals rejected by Aslef this month ran to eight pages and were put together by the Rail Delivery Group, an industry body leading negotiations.

The reforms included changes to driver training, bringing Sundays into the working week and alterations to contractual terms and conditions including sick pay arrangements, according to a copy of the document seen by the Financial Times. 

Exchanging these for a below-inflation pay rise appears to be a red line for Whelan, who has typically bargained away changes to working practices for far higher sums. “People want loads of productivity for nothing,” he said.

The Rail Delivery Group said industry reforms were vital given the railways’ financial problems, adding its pay offer “provided a significant salary uplift while bringing in long overdue, common-sense reforms that would mean more reliable services for passengers”.

“Rather than announcing further unnecessary strikes, we ask Aslef to recognise the very real financial challenge the industry is facing and work with us to deliver a better railway with a strong long-term future,” said the group. 

Aslef could be left isolated if other unions including the RMT can reach agreements with the industry in the coming weeks.

Some industry figures hope this will pile pressure on to train drivers, who are typically far better paid than other railway staff, to come to the table and finalise a deal.

But Aslef executives dismissed what Whelan has called “the politics of envy”, and insisted they were comfortable to be left as the only union in the fight.

“I would like to strike a deal before I retire, I have three years to go,” said Whelan.

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