Transport secretary says he wants rail dispute to be resolved 'sooner rather than later'

As the new year gets underway an old problem has surfaced for many commuters who travel by rail, as ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi reports

The transport secretary has said he would like to see the bitter dispute causing rail strikes this week to be resolved "sooner rather than later", as a fresh wave of industrial action cripples the country's railway network.

Mark Harper said two trade unions have already accepted a "fair and reasonable" pay offer, but progress has stalled as the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) rejected the offer by Network Rail, which owns and maintains the railways, of a 5% pay rise in 2022 and a 4% rise in 2023.

"I am sure we can reach a settlement," Mr Harper told ITV News Political Correspondent Harry Horton on Tuesday.

"But we are only going to do it if we get both sides around the table," he said, adding there has been positive developments in the talks, which are taking place between the train operating companies, Network Rail and union leaders.

'I am sure we can reach a settlement,' Mark Harper told ITV News

Mr Harper has insisted there needs to be some "reform" in the way the industry operates so passengers can have a "proper seven-day railway" which provides a reliable service.

When pressed on whether a settlement could be reached next week, Mr Harper refused to be drawn on specific dates.

He said that his ministerial team has been working to facilitate the discussions, revealing that "ongoing conversations" have occurred across the Christmas period.

The transport secretary said he would prefer to see RMT members "off the picket line" and "around the negotiating table", which is where he says the dispute is going to be resolved after the detail is "hammered out".

Mr Harper went on to suggest that the strikes are "damaging" the rail industry and the sector's employees, as well as causing mass inconvenience for the travelling public and businesses, with only a skeleton service for commuters on urban and intercity lines.

Striking a less upbeat tone on the dispute talks, Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, has said there "is an unprecedented level of ministerial interference" preventing a settlement to the dispute.

A Southeastern High Speed train leaves Ashford station in Kent under a reduced timetable during a strike by RMT members. Credit: PA

He claims thousands of workers would have lost their jobs and the railway would have become more dangerous if the RMT had accepted the latest offer from companies.

The union leader said his members overwhelmingly rejected the latest offer, which included no compulsory redundancies, as the deal was "not reasonable" due to the conditions it still imposed on workers.

"We have to accept a 50% cut in maintenance scheduled tasks, so that is a dilution of safety on the railway," he told ITV News.

"Our members working lives will be thrown up in the air and their conditions will be ripped to pieces."

Mr Lynch argued that his members are not prepared to accept an offer he says does not account for spiralling inflation which has seen living costs and energy bills surge.

He says his members are "out in force" on picket lines across the country, as he denied reports that thousands of his members have gone back to work.

Mick Lynch told ITV News that the current pay deal is 'not reasonable'

The union leader went on to say his members are prepared to look at any changes proposed in the negotiation discussions, which he described as "active".

"We have got an agreement that we could make but we need the government to facilitate that agreement, both in the train operating companies and in Network Rail," Mr Lynch told ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi.

But there are some issues which the union believe are non-negotiable.

Mr Lynch said the RMT will not accept the implementation of driver-only operations, where the train driver is in control of the opening and closing of the train's door, arguing the public is safer with a guard on board being the "advocate for the passenger".

The scene at London Paddington train station on Tuesday. Credit: PA

He has warned that industrial action will need to continue beyond May unless a reasonable offer is made to the RMT.

It comes as around half of Britain’s railway lines are closed and only a fifth of services are running as tens of thousands of workers at Network Rail and train operators stage two 48-hour walkouts starting on Tuesday and Friday.

Many places have no services, including most of Scotland and Wales. Drivers in the Aslef union will strike on Thursday.

Passengers, including those returning to work after the festive break, are being warned to expect “significant disruption” as only a limited number of trains will run.

The advice is to only travel if absolutely necessary, allow extra time and check when first and last trains will depart. There may also be disruption to services on Sunday as the striking workers return to their duties.

On RMT strike days, around half of the network will shut down, with only about 20% of normal services running.

Trains that do run will start later and finish much earlier than usual - with services typically running between 7.30am and 6.30pm on the day of the strike.

The train drivers’ strike on Thursday will affect 15 operators and will result in even fewer services running, with some companies operating "very significantly reduced" timetables.

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan told the PA news agency that the union is "in it for the long haul", adding that members have been pushed into strike due to having a real-terms pay cut and not having a wage increase since April 2019.

"We are always happy to negotiate - we never refuse to sit down at the table and talk, but these companies have offered us nothing, and that is unacceptable," he said.

Daniel Mann, director of industry operations at the Rail Delivery Group, said the bitter dispute will only be resolved by agreeing the "long overdue reforms to working arrangements needed to put the industry on a sustainable footing".

Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, however, said the government-owned company wants to "work with the RMT now to make clarifications where there’s been misunderstanding" with the rejected offer, and put it to another vote.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "We only need 2,000 people who voted no last time to change their vote and the deal will pass. So, we think that’s within touching distance."

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: "Passengers have rightly had enough of rail strikes and want the disruption to end.

"The government has demonstrated it is being reasonable and stands ready to facilitate a resolution to rail disputes. It’s time the unions came to the table and played their part as well.

"Inflation-matching pay increases for all public sector workers would cost everyone more in the long term – worsening debt, fuelling inflation, and costing every household an extra £1,000.

"Unions should step back from this strike action so we can start 2023 by ending this damaging dispute."

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