The staff in 13 train operating companies have voted in favour of rail strikes. The ballot also involved staff at Network Rail, who have added their support for walkouts.
A majority of RMT members at Govia Thameslink Railway only voted for industrial action short of a strike, while those at Island Line are understood not to have supported any industrial action.
The RMT described the result of 89 per cent in favour of action as ‘overwhelming’, and said its National Executive Committee will now be considering its next steps. The union may now legally call strikes at any or all of the operators, and also at Network Rail, giving 14 days’ notice, but transport secretary Grant Shapps has said the law might have to be changed to enforce minimum attendance by railway employees.
The RMT said it would now be demanding ‘urgent talks’. General secretary MIck Lynch added: ‘Today's overwhelming endorsement by railway workers is a vindication of the union's approach and sends a clear message that members want a decent pay rise, job security and no compulsory redundancies.
‘Our NEC will now meet to discuss a timetable for strike action from mid-June, but we sincerely hope ministers will encourage the employers to return to the negotiating table and hammer out a reasonable settlement with the RMT.’
The chair of the Rail Delivery Group Steve Montgomery pointed out that the railways had received more then £16 billion in taxpayer support since the start of the Covid lockdowns in March 2020.
He said: ‘Our railways must adapt to attract more passengers back and reduce our running costs. It is not fair to ask taxpayers to continue to shoulder the burden when there are other vital services that need public support.
‘Nobody wins when industrial action threatens to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of passengers and businesses and puts the industry’s recovery at risk. We urge the RMT leadership to behave responsibly, and to talk to us to find a way to avoid damaging industrial action and secure the long-term future of the industry.
‘Every business wants to support its staff and the railway is no exception. All train operators want to offer their staff a pay rise and are working hard to make that happen. But, as an industry, we have to change our ways of working and improve productivity to help pay our own way – the alternatives of asking taxpayers to shoulder the burden after government has contributed over £16 billion to the industry during Covid or asking passengers to pay even higher fares when they too are feeling the pinch, simply isn’t fair.‘
Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines accused the RMT of ‘jumping the gun’. He continued: ‘The RMT has jumped the gun here as everyone loses if there’s a strike. We know our people are concerned about job security and pay. As a public body we have been working on offering a pay increase that taxpayers can afford, and we continue to discuss this with our trades unions. We urge the RMT to sit down with us and continue to talk, not walk, so that we can find a compromise and avoid damaging industrial action.
‘We are at a key point in the railway’s recovery from the pandemic. The taxpayer has provided the industry with £16 billion worth of additional life support over the last two years and that cannot continue. Travel habits have changed forever and the railway has to change as well to adapt to this new reality. We believe that by modernising – creating safer jobs for our people and operating the railway more efficiently – we can build a sustainable future with a railway that delivers for passengers and taxpayers.
‘Any industrial action now would be disastrous for our industry’s recovery and would hugely impact vital supply and freight chains. It would also serve to undermine our collective ability to afford the pay increases we want to make.’
The last national walkouts were called in 1994, on the eve of privatisation, although the services of various private sector operators have been disrupted since then. Disputes are currently affecting ScotRail and TransPennine Express, while there was lengthy disruption of Southern services in 2016 (pictured) in a dispute over on-train staffing. The widespread cancellations which resulted led to an angry protest by Southern passengers at London Victoria.