‘Disastrous’ cuts to UK track maintenance could signal ‘biggest rail strike in history’

Some 40,000 UK National Rail workers could stage ‘the biggest rail strike in modern history’ – a response to the wage freeze and a threat to the jobs of some 2,500, largely maintenance workers.

Between April 26 and May 24, staff will vote and, if there is a 50% turnout – a requirement of the Trade Unions Act 2016 – the strike could start in June.

Those elected will be passenger services staff, but The Loadstar has reason to believe that the disruption caused by the strike would not be limited to passenger rail transport.

“If the people in charge of maintenance and signaling came out, it would have a different effect than if it were just the drivers,” said Phil Smart, deputy director of policy for the Rail Freight Group. The Loadstar.

“Freight has remained buoyant during the pandemic and has an important future. There are alternatives to passenger travel, but moving bricks and aggregate isn’t something that can be done remotely.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Railway workers have faced wage freezes, the prospect of losing their jobs and repeated attacks on their terms and conditions. Cutting 2,500 safety-critical Network Rail jobs will spell disaster for the public, make accidents more likely and increase the possibility of trains running off the tracks.

“Railway operating companies praised our members for being key workers during the pandemic, but refused to keep staff pay in line with inflation and the soaring cost of living.”

Plans are being made by Network Rail for Control Period 7 (CP7), a five-year budgeting phase which will begin in March 2024. As part of these discussions, a decision is made as to whether railways must continue to be maintained for Route Availability-10″ (RA10) – a bearing standard for tracks, equivalent to 25.4 tonnes – or to allow maintenance standards to be upgraded to RA8 (up to 22 .8 tonnes), which would mean a major cut back on maintenance operations.This would have a huge knock-on effect on the passage of rail freight through the UK.

However, Mr. Smart explained, it was not necessarily possible to establish a direct correlation between a lowering of maintenance standards and the number of job losses.

“You have [technology] which sits on trains and monitors the condition of tracks, overhead wires, etc. Given that, he added, he couldn’t say how many of those jobs “are safety-critical…or how much of that might be related to new lane monitoring technology.”