Following the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union’s recent announcement that it would be taking three more days of strike action next month – on 3, 5 and 7 November – Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the new Transport Secretary, told MPs that she thinks that “we are not at the end of industrial action” across Britain’s railways.
The RMT embarked on a summer of strikes in their long running dispute with Network Rail and other train operators over pay, working conditions and job security. Last week, the Transport Committee heard from Mick Lynch, the RMT’s general secretary, who told MPs that the deals rail operators are offering his union are “not acceptable”.
Lynch said that averting a never-ending cycle of strikes depends on operators getting a new “mandate” in negotiations from Trevelyan and the Department for Transport (DfT), who set the parameters for train companies giving any concessions over pay and conditions.
On 19 October, amidst the political chaos unravelling in Westminster, Trevelyan appeared in front of the Transport Committee to discuss her new role and the challenges ahead.
Where does Trevelyan stand on the strikes?
Trevelyan is clear that she wants to improve her department’s standing with the unions, in an attempt to fix the difficult relationship they had with her predecessor Grant Shapps, who Lynch once described as “incompetent”.
The Transport Secretary told the committee that she has met with union leaders, “to understand where they’re coming from and what the important issues are for them”. Trevelyan added that while she is “a respecter and supporter of unions who do a good job for their members”, she doesn’t back ones that act “to the detriment to the ones that they serve”.
Trevelyan emphasised to the committee that she’s keen to keep an open dialogue with unions moving forward: “We’ve had some frank and interesting conversations, and my door continues to be open.”
Does that mean there will be resolution soon?
Not necessarily. While Lynch has told the media that his meeting with Trevelyan was “a good start”, the day before the Transport Secretary gave evidence in parliament the RMT announced that further strike action would take place in November, following a pay offer “U-turn” from Network Rail.
There remains fundamental disagreements as to the amount of savings that will need to be made – and therefore jobs cuts – across the rail network, after the government bailed out train operators with £16bn of taxpayers’ money during the height of the pandemic. Trevelyan said she wants operators and unions to “work together” within “the financial envelope, the modernisation requirements, that we need to deliver for the railways”.
The issue of “modernisation requirements”, and what that entails, will be the key sticking point. Lynch told the committee last week that these “requirements” are “what they [DfT and operators] call modernisation, which we sometimes call cuts”. Reductions in maintenance and signalling jobs due to plans to replace ticketing staff with machines, along with train driver working hours, all remain points of contention.
Solutions on these issues will have to be negotiated and agreed upon within the “financial envelope” of savings Trevelyan outlined before the prospect of ending strike action.
What plans are there for the rail industry in general?
Plans to establish Great British Railways (GBR), a new public body that would oversee Britain’s railways and be in charge of franchising train services and setting fares and timetables, has been delayed until at least May 2023, due to the abandonment of the Transport Bill. Trevelyan confirmed in the committee session that the establishment of GBR will likely not go ahead in 2024 as planned, as legislation around the energy crisis is now a priority instead.
Trevelyan also confirmed that plans for the HS2 and Northern Powerhouse rail networks will be delivered in full, despite concerns from the Transport Committee’s MPs that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt could scythe plans when he is expected to announce public spending cuts at the end of October.
“I can give you the absolute assurance that I will work as hard as I can,” Trevelyan, the MP for the north-east constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, said. “Whilst investment everywhere is important, bringing up the long-term lack of investment in many parts of the north is something that I am absolutely focused on.”