UK rail groups prepare for weekend talks over pre-Christmas strikes

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UK rail unions and train operators are preparing for possible weekend talks aimed at averting looming pre-Christmas strikes after both sides had an “open and constructive discussion” with government.

Representatives of the Rail Delivery Group, which speaks for train operating companies, and Network Rail, owner of Great Britain’s rail infrastructure, on Friday took part in talks with the RMT, the biggest transport union, and the smaller TSSA.

One person involved said the negotiators had a deadline of Monday evening to reach an agreement to avert a 48-hour walkout due to start on December 13.

If there is no deal by then, rail industry rostering and timetabling processes will work on the assumption that staff will strike on December 13 and 14, meaning trains would not run even if a settlement came later.

The talks followed a meeting on Friday morning between rail minister Huw Merriman, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch and senior Rail Delivery Group and Network Rail managers.

The rail strikes are among a series of continuing disputes across a range of sectors — including the NHS, schools and universities — mostly over pay offers far behind consumer price inflation, which is at a 41-year high of 11.1 per cent annually.

Merriman said afterwards that there had been a “constructive and open discussion” about the challenges facing the railways.

“I was clear that the parties should work towards creating a modern and financially sustainable railway which provides value for money for all passengers and taxpayers,” he said, adding: “Everyone agreed to continue talking to try and resolve these longstanding issues and bring an end to this dispute.”

The person involved said there were meetings scheduled over the weekend in case it proved necessary to press on. The RMT declined to comment, while the RDG could not be reached for comment.

As well as walking out on December 13 and 14, RMT staff at Network Rail and 14 train operators are due to hold three further 48-hour strikes, on December 16 and 17, January 3 and 4 and January 6 and 7.

The dispute with Network Rail concerns pay, working conditions and job security, while the unions are at loggerheads with train operators over pay and working conditions.

Separately, the PCS civil service union on Friday said it would hold strikes to coincide with the RMT’s action. It called a series of rolling walkouts by traffic officers at National Highways, starting on December 16.

The union said the strike over pay risked bringing the agency that operates England’s strategic roads network “to a standstill”. PCS members are in charge of the traffic signs that divert drivers away from crash sites and other dangers.

Duncan Smith, National Highways’ executive director of operations, said PCS members made up a “small part” of its workforce and the agency was confident it had “well-rehearsed resilience plans” to ensure the continued safe operation of its network.

Unite also announced plans for a second 72-hour walkout by its members working for Menzies Aviation, a large ground handler for flights at London’s Heathrow airport.

The union said the action, which will start at 4am on December 16, would lead to flight cancellations and delays for passengers. But Menzies said a previous 72-hour strike by the same workers in November had led to no cancellations.

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