Rail union leader ‘incredibly upbeat’ ahead of next train drivers’ strikes

As rail passengers prepare for eight days of disruption from engineering work and industrial action by train drivers, the union boss says he is “incredibly upbeat”.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, told The Independent: “It’s hard not to be enthused. We’re 22 months into this – the longest rail strike in history. And we’re still getting mandates of 94 to 99 per cent. We’ve still got picket lines. There’s no wavering.”

Network Rail engineering projects will cause significant problems for many passengers between Saturday and Monday.

The final day of the bank holiday weekend coincides with the start of a six-day overtime ban by train drivers belonging to Aslef, as well as three “rolling” one-day strikes.

The action will mark the third summer of walk-outs since the dispute on pay and working arrangements began. The union has not had talks with the employers – the 14 train operators represented by the Rail Delivery Group – for over a year.

Mr Whelan said: “We want to get around the table and resolve this. We are not the barrier. We are not the cause of this problem. We didn’t start it. We did not want to be here. We want a resolution.

“But it won’t be at all costs. It has to be on the right terms for the people I represent. And after five years without a pay rise, I think they’ve got a right to ask.”

A Rail Delivery Group spokesperson said: “We want to see an end to this dispute and in that spirit, we have written to the Aslef leadership to try and find areas of common ground that will allow us to move to formal negotiations.”

The prospect of any meaningful talks before the industrial action looks extremely unlikely.

The aim of the rolling strikes is to cause as much disruption as possible with minimum loss off pay.

Aslef is targeting London commuter services with a walk-out at many train operators serving the capital on Tuesday 7 May. Almost all services will be halted.

The following day, most intercity trains will be cancelled as drivers working for Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, GWR and other firms stop work.

On Thursday 9 May, northern England is the target. TransPennine Express and Northern will cancel all trains, while LNER will operate a skeleton service on the London-York-Newcastle-Edinburgh route.

During the overtime ban, thousands of trains are likely to be cancelled as a result of the refusal of rest-day working.

Mr Whelan said angry passengers should direct their ire at ministers and “the privateers” – private companies contracted by the Department for Transport (DfT) to provide rail services.

At the root of the dispute is the union’s demand for a no-strings pay award, followed by local negotiations on changes to working arrangements.

Ministers, who will ultimately sign off any deal, insist that even a modest increase is contingent on wide-ranging productivity improvements.

“There’s no reform on the table,” Mr Whelan insisted. “All we saw was a land-grab for terms and conditions to maximise the profits of privateers. “People want a resolution, but don’t want a resolution at all costs.”

The union has refused to put the April 2023 pay offer to members, saying repeated overwhelming strike mandates show the strength of feeling among train drivers about the deal.

The Aslef boss had previously told The Independent that it would take a change of government to solve the dispute.

When asked about the prospects for a swift settlement were Labour to come to power, he said: “We’ve got no guarantees that the new government, if and when they win, will do anything different.

“We hope they’d be more sympathetic and want this out of the way.”

The Independent has asked the Department for Transport (DfT) for comment.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, posted earlier this month on X (formerly Twitter): “Buried in Labour’s rail nationalisation plan: greater control for the unions, more ministerial meddling ,leading to fewer services. Making things worse for passengers.

“Labour would take us back to square one – and the bad old days of British Rail.”

The Rail Delivery Group spokesperson said: “We can only apologise to our customers for this wholly unnecessary strike action called by the Aslef leadership which will sadly disrupt journeys once again.

“It will also inflict further damage on an industry that is receiving up to an additional £54m a week in taxpayer cash to keep services running, following the Covid downturn.

“While we are working with our industry partners to keep as many trains running as possible, unfortunately there will be reduced services between Monday 6 and Saturday 11 May. As the level of service will vary across the country, our advice is to check before you travel and follow the latest travel information.”

Passengers trying to avoid the industrial action by travelling over the weekend may encounter problems – especially on the West Coast main line.

The line between Birmingham International and Rugby is closed on all three days, while the London Euston and Milton Keynes link will close completely on Sunday.

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