The crisis threatening Britain’s railways this summer has deepened after train drivers voted to join the biggest rail strikes in a generation.
A union leader warned of a “summer of discontent” as drivers on three lines backed industrial action, with the strike ballots expected to spread.
The railway walkout, the largest since 1989, will coincide with a strike by 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, set for June 21, 23 and 25. Now two other unions have joined the fray: Aslef, representing drivers, and the Transport and Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), of non-driving staff.
Strikes elsewhere across British infrastructure are also being considered. Members of the GMB and Unite unions working for British Airways at Heathrow are voting on action. A ballot of 115,000 members of the Communication Workers Union working for Royal Mail and 40,000 at BT will begin on June 15. There are also a growing number of bin strikes and walkouts by bus drivers.
Manuel Cortes, the TSSA general secretary, raised the prospect of a “summer of discontent” across the network, saying the union was open to co-ordinated action to bring maximum disruption.
Drivers with Greater Anglia will walk out on June 23 and Hull Train drivers will strike on June 26, with disruption expected to last into Monday. Tramlink drivers in Croydon will walk out for two 48-hour strikes starting on June 28.
Services across Britain face more than a week of severe disruption in what may prove to be the first in a wave of summer walkouts.
Aslef is also balloting drivers working on Arriva Rail London, Chiltern, Great Western, LNER, Northern Trains, ScotRail, Southeastern, TransPennine Express and West Midlands Trains.
Boris Johnson urged train companies to stand firm in the face of the threat from unions. He said yesterday it was “time for us all to grasp the nettle of reform, and move — sensibly and responsibly — to the end of some outdated working practices”.
The prime minister pointed to the fact that some ticket offices in the country “barely sell a ticket a week”. He referred to his time as chairman of Transport for London a decade ago when he “successfully” closed ticket offices on the Underground without catastrophic consequences despite union chiefs’ predictions.
Speaking in Blackpool, Johnson said: “The time has come to do the same thing across the transport network. The union barons will once again protest. But the winners will be railway staff — whose industry will be placed on a much sounder long-term footing — and the fare-paying travelling public.”
Labour appeared to be struggling with its messaging over the strikes. The party was forced to clarify that it did not support the action after Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling-up secretary, said that it “was on the rail workers’ side”.
The TSSA is balloting members as part of an “escalating dispute across the railway”. TSSA workers on the Avanti West Coast line, which operates intercity services between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow will be asked if they want to strike in a dispute over pay and terms.
Sources warned that union bosses were considering combined strikes that could coincide with the Commonwealth Games, which start next month, by stopping intercity trains to Birmingham, the host city. All government departments have been told to draw up contingency plans.
Aslef is fighting for pay rises in line with inflation, at 11.1 on the retail price index, saying that many members have not had a rise since 2019. Train drivers are paid up to £70,000 a year in Britain.
The RMT is demanding the same rise as well as a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies. It accuses Network Rail of intending to cut at least 2,500 maintenance jobs as part of a £2 billion cut in spending. Network Rail disputes this.
Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, said: “Many of our members have not had a pay rise since 2019. We will fight to maintain the pay, terms and conditions, and the pensions of our members. We are not naive.”
A source said the fact that 80 per cent of Greater Anglia drivers voted for action would “mobilise” drivers working for other operators.
A source close to the Aslef union insisted that its actions were not comparable with those of the RMT. “It is a different kind of union,” the source said. “The RMT feel they are under an existential threat, which I understand, and they are striking to protect their members’ jobs.
“What Aslef is doing is completely different. There are no redundancies of drivers proposed in any of the train operating companies. For the drivers it’s simply about pay as many of them haven’t had an increase since 2019.”
The plans include a total shutdown of passenger rail travel before 7.30am or after 6.30pm during the three days of industrial action. Priority will be given to freight services transporting fuel and food. The whole network is likely to be reduced to a skeleton service from June 21 to 26. A senior rail source said: “We are managing people’s expectations down very firmly.”