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‘After 16 months, we’re in it for as long as it takes,’ says rail union boss as strikes resume

As train drivers prepare for the next round of industrial action in a long and bitter dispute over pay and working arrangements, their union leader has vowed: “We’re in it for as long as it takes.”

Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, said: “We’ve been in this battle now for over 16 months.

“This is not a dispute of our making. It wasn’t us that decided not to give anybody a pay rise for half a decade.”

Aslef is in dispute with the 14 train operators in England that are contracted by the government to provide rail services. They include all the big intercity companies as well as train firms serving commuters around London, the Midlands and the North of England. Neither ScotRail nor Transport for Wales is involved in the dispute.

The union is seeking a no-strings pay increase followed by negotiations at a local level to modernise working practices – which will come at an additional price to the employers.

The train operators, who are represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), say that even a modest wage rise is contingent on far-reaching reforms. Any deal will be signed off by the Department for Transport (DfT), with taxpayers footing the bill: ticket revenue is about 20 per cent down on pre-Covid levels.

Members of Aslef are about to launch nine days of industrial action that will cause the cancellation of tens of thousands of trains and hit the travel plans of millions of passengers in the run-up to Christmas.

Train drivers will refuse to work overtime on the first nine days of December. Within those dates, there will be a series of rolling strikes involving different rail firms in different parts of the country on different days.

It is a change of tactics in an industrial conflict that has seen national walk-outs by train drivers on 14 separate occasions since July 2022.

Mr Whelan said: “We feel that we needed to show that we can vary our tactics to meet whatever’s coming at us in the future.

“We’ve had no contact from anybody for the best part of nine months, neither from the RDG, the government or anybody else.

“I haven’t seen [transport secretary] Mr Harper since December of last year. I haven’t seen [rail minister] Mr Merriman since 6 January, when the deceitful deal that he was part of went out. And I haven’t seen anyone from the RDG from the act of bad faith that happened in April.

“We’ve gone into all of these talks in good faith and they’ve behaved atrociously throughout the whole process.”

The rail minister, Huw Merriman, said: “Following RMT members voting to overwhelmingly accept the train operators’ pay offer, Aslef is now not just the only rail union still striking but the only union not to even put an offer to its members.

“They are instead choosing to cause more misery for passengers and the hospitality sector this festive period.

“The fair and reasonable offer that’s long been on the table would bring the average train driver’s salary up to £65,000 for a 35-hour, four-day week.

“Aslef’s leadership should follow in the footsteps of all the other rail unions by doing the right thing and giving their members a say on that offer.”

Members of the RMT rail union overwhemingly backed a deal from the RDG. The offer is an unconditional wage rise of 5 per cent (or more for lower-paid workers), for 2022 – with backdated pay reaching RMT members by Christmas. Assuming the deal is approved, talks will begin in the New Year between union representatives and each rail firm.

A similar deal might be acceptable to train drivers, but the Aslef general secretary said no such offer deal has been made: “If they [the RMT] accept it gladly that’s their choice.

“The fact that they [the RDG] have been meeting with other groups under the framework agreement and not making any contact with us at all tells you the direction of travel and the tactics of the DfT and the government.

“Unfortunately for us, they’ve made no contact with us, showed no willingness to talk to us.”

A spokesperson for Rail Delivery Group said: “Our priority is finding a fair and affordable way through this dispute, so we can end the disruption to our passengers, give our people a pay rise and return the industry to a sustainable footing at a time when taxpayers are contributing an extra £54m a week to keep services running post-Covid. W

“We have always been clear that we remain open to constructive dialogue with Aslef to find a resolution, and that is still the case.”

Mr Whelan believes it could take a change of government before a solution is found. He said: “I just put it out there as an option. When you’ve waited the best part of six or seven months or more, for someone to talk to you to solve what they claim is a major situation that needs to be resolved, but they make no overtures to do it, you have to assume that they don’t want to do it in this Parliament.

“It’s a political decision to not extend HS2 [from Birmingham to Manchester].

“It’s a political decision to concentrate on car drivers and not on public transport.

“That would be happening anyway, regardless of whether we’re in dispute or not.

“You have to assume that they’re hanging the process out. Or was this just purely a long-term tactic under their authoritarian anti-trade union legislation to burn the unions out, hoping that we’d come back to the table cap in hand?

“Either way the ball has always been in their court – bearing in mind that we don’t negotiate with the government and we do not work for the government.

“We work for private companies that are making hundreds of millions of pounds and paying dividends to their shareholders – of which we’ve free collective bargaining agreements which they obviate on a daily basis.

“What we’ve actually got is a group of people in a cartel who are happy not to run a productive railway, happy not to run a safe railway, happy to pillage the railway for profit, but not pay the people who actually work upon the railway. And we’ve got a government that supports that process.”