The railway has long been quietly gearing up for what is being headlined as the biggest industrial battle in a generation. Now, with the weapon of a national strike ballot primed, the RMT rail union has to decide whether to pull the trigger.
Its national executive committee will discuss next steps in the coming days, after 40,000 members across Network Rail and 15 train operating companies voted overwhelmingly for action. For now, it is officially inviting more talks with train operating companies – a slightly perplexing stance for some in the industry, who said the RMT had jumped the gun before pay discussions had begun.
Nonetheless, many expect the first in what is likely to be a series of 24-hour stoppages to be called for late June. At an estimated daily cost of £30m, that will prove, as transport secretary Grant Shapps warned, damaging to an industry very much in recovery mode, but not necessarily a full-blown logistical crisis for the country, as some have suggested.
Senior rail figures looked on aghast as Shapps said ministers were considering limiting the right to strike – a move that inevitably inflamed unions. More thoughtful parts of government have been trying quietly to avoid conflict: bosses are drawing up contingency plans that will not work if all rail unions join the strike.
For the RMT, there is a significant dent in an otherwise unanimous vote, with Govia Thameslink Railway employees only backing action short of a strike. GTR contains three big commuter operations, Thameslink, Great Northern and Southern. The latter was the scene of bitter and prolonged strikes in 2016-17, a time when most of its customers were forced to come into London to work regardless.
Office staff are now proved well able to work from home – a change that will hugely reduce political pressure from MPs in the commuter belt to settle strikes at all costs. And without continuous strikes for more than 72 hours, there is little prospect of goods or power supplies being disrupted, despite dire warnings over the critical role of rail freight.
The Southern strikes are also a reminder that the RMT train staff alone were not enough, even then, to force a total stoppage – or to entirely halt the reforms they were fighting.
The critical RMT weapon in any strike this time will be its 20,000 Network Rail members, including around 5,000 signallers, who would be able to stop large parts of the network running. But the newest parts of the railway – such as Thameslink and the intercity main lines – use digital signalling that can be operated by a handful of staff, allowing managers and non-RMT signallers to keep a limited service going.
Other unions may yet play a role, including the TSSA, which represents more of the middle management – including the contingency staff – and would have leverage in combined action. The train drivers’ union, Aslef, is unlikely to act before autumn – but as a dispute in Scotland shows, even the withdrawal of rest-day working can have a massive impact in an industry that has a dearth of drivers.
Yet the standoff does threaten to escalate. There is no obvious answer to the changing patterns of travel and lower revenue for the railway, which has so many fixed costs. One target could be the rolling stock companies, who have continued to make vast profits. But rail pay and productivity will come first – and the prospect of a quiet settlement, with the kind of index-linked pay rise normally enjoyed across all ranks, has receded with galloping inflation.
That makes the stakes higher for staff, whose wages are eroded, but also for ministers, who appear to be heeding – despite protestations – the Bank of England governor, Andrew Bailey, who urged pay restraint to curb inflation, despite the cost-of-living crisis.
The bigger immediate political headache may not be so much that the railway stalls – but that the outcome will be watched intently by other parts of the public sector, also desperate for a pay rise, who can wear the badge of pandemic frontline heroes with even more justification than railway staff.