Train drivers ‘in it for the long haul’ as they vote to continue strikes

Rail strikes could go on another six months after an overwhelming vote from train drivers to continue industrial action, as controversy mounted over whether the government scuppered a deal with unions.

The drivers’ union, Aslef, said they were “in it for the long haul” and the percentage of the vote in favour of strikes across 12 operating companies was higher than before.

Mick Whelan, the general secretary, said: “This shows just how angry – and determined – our members are.”

He added: “Strikes are always a last resort. But the intransigent attitude of the train companies – with the government acting, with malice, in the shadows – has forced our hand.”

Aslef’s new mandate came after the transport secretary, Mark Harper, refused to deny reports that the government pushed rail companies to include future use of driver-only trains as a condition of a pay deal, potentially scuppering an agreement.

Under sustained questioning before the Commons transport committee, Harper repeatedly declined to engage with the subject.

On Sunday night, the RMT union rejected a first formal offer from train operators. Its general secretary, Mick Lynch, said the offer included proposals that the employers and Department for Transport “knew would not be acceptable to RMT members”.

The proposals, part of an offer of a 4% pay increase in 2022 and the same sum in 2023, included driver-only operation in which drivers control train doors on some services, eliminating the need for a guard. The RMT and Aslef have long opposed this on safety and jobs grounds.

Labour said the government should be held responsible for rail disruption if it had forced the issue. The inclusion of a point that clearly breached a union red line is understood to have come as a surprise, coming immediately after a meeting with employers on Friday that was described as positive and included a rail minister, Huw Merriman, for the first time.

Harper was asked by the Labour MP Grahame Morris about reports that the driver-only stipulation had been included at the request of either Downing Street or the Treasury.

“I haven’t seen the report so I can’t really comment on it,” Harper replied, prompting another Labour MP on the committee, Ben Bradshaw, to repeatedly press him on the matter.

“Detailed negotiations are taking place between employers and trade unions. It’s not the government’s role to micro-manage the detail of the reform,” Harper said, after trying to dodge the question several times.

Told by Bradshaw that he was avoiding the question of whether the government had intervened over driver-only services, Harper replied: “I have been clear, you have to have reform to drive the savings. But I’m not going to provide a running commentary.”

He rejected the idea that government conditions might have stopped a deal, saying: “No one is trying to stop a deal, quite the reverse.”

Unlike his predecessor Grant Shapps, Harper has been more open to joining discussions between train companies and unions, and he said there had been some “constructive” talks, despite the lack of a deal.

On Monday, the RMT union also refused an improved offer from Network Rail and announced a plan for additional strikes, from 6pm on Christmas Eve until 7am on 27 December, which will mainly impact engineering works.

Asked by the Conservative MP Chris Loder about a government bill that could in effect outlaw rail strikes by setting out minimum required service levels, Harper said that given a lack of cross-party support, it would not pass in time to affect the current dispute.

“That legislation may well lead to an improvement in the medium to long term, but however fast it is progressed, given it has to go through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is not a solution to dealing with the industrial action we see at the moment,” he said.

Commenting after the hearing, the shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “What an utterly shambolic way to conduct industrial relations – to simultaneously impose conditions while refusing to accept any responsibility for negotiation.

“If No 10 have forced the issue of driver-only trains into the negotiations at this last minute, then they, and they alone, will be responsible for Christmas chaos.”