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Crisis talks to prevent empty supermarket shelves amid fears of railway strike

21 May 2022 3 minute read
A GWR train at Cardiff Central station. Photo by Dai Lygad is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Contingency plans are being drawn up to try and keep passenger and freight trains running in Wales in the event of industrial action after unions warned of “potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history”.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union is balloting 40,000 members on the move, which network sources have reportedly said would create “serious challenges” in keeping goods moving and supermarket shelves stocked.

The vote, which is due to close on Tuesday, includes staff on Network Rail and 15 train operating companies – including Cross Country Trains, Great Western Railway and Avanti West Coast – with the RMT saying the action is being taken over pay, compulsory redundancies and safety concerns.

The union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), has warned of a “summer of discontent” with similar action on the way unless pay disputes are resolved.

TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes has said many members have not seen a wage increase for two years.

“If the Department for Transport, Train Operating Companies and Network Rail don’t come forward very soon with proposed pay increases, which at least match inflation, a summer of discontent is on the way across our railways,” Mr Cortes said.

Specific details about the action have not yet been outlined by the RMT, but rail bosses could respond by reserving certain times of day exclusively for the passing of freight trains, according to the Times.

Serious challenges

A senior rail source is quoted by the paper as saying: “We want to keep people and goods moving but there is no doubt we face serious challenges.

“There is an awful lot of work going on behind the scenes including around what the timetable might look like. One option is times of the day when only freight services operate.”

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has urged against what it describes as a “premature” ballot but said it was drawing up contingency plans to try and lessen the effects of any potential strike.

A RDG spokesperson said: “The pandemic was an unprecedented shock for the railway, we now need to adapt to new travel patterns while taking no more than our fair share from the taxpayer. Nobody wins when rail is disrupted.

“The RMT leadership should put an end to this damaging uncertainty by abandoning their premature ballot but like any responsible industry we are contingency planning to minimise the impact of potential strike action on the economy and to keep goods and passengers moving this summer.”

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Railway workers have had to contend with pay freezes, the prospect of losing their jobs and repeated attacks on their terms and conditions.

“Removing 2,500 safety-critical jobs from Network Rail will spell disaster for the public, make accidents more likely and will increase the possibility of trains flying off the tracks.

“Train operating companies have praised our members for being key workers during the pandemic but have refused to keep staff pay in line with inflation and soaring living costs.

“As a result, thousands of railway workers have seen their living standards plummet and have run out of patience.

“The way for trade unions to effectively take on the cost-of-living crisis is to stand up for their members at work and take industrial action when employers are not moved by the force of reasoned argument.

“A national rail strike will bring the country to a standstill, but our members’ livelihoods and passenger safety are our priorities.”

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