Efforts to avert what has been described as the most widespread rail strike in a generation appeared to have foundered yesterday with even the faint possibility of a settlement unlikely to prevent significant disruption this week. Moreover, the acrimony and propensity to apportion blame on all sides suggests this dispute will run through the summer and beyond.
The RMT union has lodged a claim for a 7 per cent pay rise, which is higher than the rail companies can possibly afford, yet is still below the expected inflation rate in the autumn. In London, the Tube drivers are also on strike, making travel into and out of the capital difficult for millions of commuters.
Some parts of the network are open on a restricted timetable but the scope for chaos over this week is obvious. Even though the walk-outs are due to happen on alternate days, the trains and rolling stock will be in the wrong places to ensure there is a proper service on non-strike days.
The last national strike on such a scale was in 1994 when signallers staged 10 weeks of stoppages shortly after Railtrack (later Network Rail) had been created from the state-run British Rail. Ironically, this strike takes place after the Government has announced plans effectively to renationalise the entire system under its new brand Great British Railways.
This inevitably raises the question of the role to be played by the Government in the dispute. The unions and Labour say it has a duty to get involved; the employers say ministers should stay out, and the latter agree.
If it became a fight between the RMT and the Government, it would set a benchmark for the rest of the public sector where unions are also agitating for trouble over pay and conditions. Teachers, health workers and even barristers have all indicated they may take strike action to protect living standards as inflation soars.
The Government is right to remain at one remove and must stick with it, but more could have been done, and may yet need to be done, to alleviate the impact of the strikes. In 1994, thousands of free parking places were provided to enable commuters to drive into London. Why not this time? Why has Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, not suspended the capital’s Ulez and congestion charges and allowed parking for free for the week? The assumption that people can work from home, as during the pandemic, is lazy and defeatist.