Britons face the start of six days of travel misery on Tuesday as the rail network grinds to a halt because of strikes.
Four days of industrial action this week will leave just 20 per cent of services running on strike days, as the RMT and TSSA unions walk out in disputes over pay rises, job security and changes to working practices.
Passengers have been urged not to try to travel unless necessary on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Knock-on disruption will follow on Thursday and Sunday mornings.
The most significant strikes will come from the RMT, which has 40,000 members and is embroiled in two separate disputes with Network Rail, the infrastructure owner, and 14 train operating companies.
On Monday, RMT members voted to reject a pay and reform package from Network Rail. Union leaders had urged members to reject the 9 per cent pay rise over two years, with more for lower-paid staff, which was tied to big changes to working practices.
RMT leader Mick Lynch said the rejection of a “substandard offer” showed that members “are determined to take further strike action in pursuit of a negotiated settlement”.
He added that support for the strikes remained high among his members.
“We’ve got massive picket lines out today, we’ve taken the railway into virtual shutdown,” he told the BBC on Tuesday. He urged both the rail employers and the government to raise their offer to the unions.
“Our members are standing by the call and they are prepared to take action until we get a settlement that they can agree to. We haven’t got that at the moment and we will continue with our campaign until our members say they are ready to settle.”
But some railway executives were privately buoyed by the relatively close result on Monday’s, in which 63.6 per cent voted against the offer.
Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said the RMT’s leadership “needs to think long and hard about what to do next”. The TSSA union has urged members to accept a similar deal, with a result expected in the coming days, while on Monday Unite members backed their own deal.
“The RMT are the outliers here, they need to stop playing politics,” Haines said.
The RMT and TSSA are still also in separate disputes with the train operators, which appear harder to resolve. The industry has offered an 8 per cent rise, tied to some big workplace reforms.
Last week, the Financial Times reported that ministers had prevented the industry from offering unions higher pay deals and added tough new conditions at the last minute. Ministers quashed proposals for a higher 10 per cent two-year deal because they feared the inflationary impact.
The government has said that while it sets the parameters of talks and is the railway’s financial guarantor, it does not involve itself in the minutiae of the negotiations.
When asked about the FT report on Tuesday morning, transport secretary Mark Harper insisted that detailed negotiations were “between the trade unions and the companies”.
Harper told the BBC that the smaller TSSA union had accepted Network Rail’s offer, although it rejected the train operators’ deal.
“I think most people looking at those offers will think they are fair and reasonable offers, very comparable with the sort of deals taking place across the wider economy.”
Harper told GB News that the unions were losing public sympathy. “I think the tide is turning on people seeing that the offers we have made are reasonable, taking into account both the travelling public but also the interests of taxpayers.”