Tens of thousands of rail workers have joined Britain’s biggest nationwide rail strike in 30 years. Disruption is expected for the rest of the week after 40,000 members of the RMT union voted to strike over pay and conditions. Here, five rail workers share their views on the decision to take industrial action.
TfL train driver, 40s, east Midlands
On the national rail side, the strike has to do with pay and cuts to staffing. But for TfL staff it’s about terms and conditions, not pay. On the Victoria line we have been striking for the last six months on night tube services that have been implemented without our agreement. We’re fighting against this because of fatigue, caring responsibilities – there are various reasons we didn’t want to work night tube, it’s not in our contract.
We want to keep the staffing to pre-pandemic levels for safety. We’ve got stations that are unmanned and if anything happens there’s nobody on those stations. During the pandemic we had a lot of staff with Covid, a lot of staff with long Covid, we’ve had colleagues pass away. Yet we still ran a full service as best we could. I think a lot of the staff have just about had enough. We want some long-term funding. We want to keep London running. We want to keep our jobs and we want to keep the conditions we’ve got now.
Signaller, 50s, Surrey
Nobody I work with wants to go on strike, we enjoy our work and signallers are well paid but there is no justification for us to get poorer every year. We have a very responsible job. The first line of the job advert says signallers are the guardians of safety. We worked through the pandemic not questioning the pay freeze or the withholding of annual bonus, but now inflation is seriously affecting our standard of living.
The government wants to shed thousands of maintenance positions, which will have terrible effects on punctuality as faults will not be attended to in a timely manner. It will in turn make my job harder, not to mention the effect it will have on the safety of the travelling public. It will create delays.
The threat of using agency workers is laughable as most railway jobs require specific competency. Signalling is a three-month intensive residential course to get your basic qualification, then you’ve got to start learning how to run each pole, so that’s a non-starter. The maintenance staff, who aren’t very well paid, have completed a four-year apprenticeship. It’s a really stringent course and you’ve got to get retested on it on a regular basis.
The government doesn’t know what it’s talking about and is playing to the anti-union gallery rather than trying to resolve this dispute.
Rail guard, 50s, south-east England
I won’t be striking. I am by no means a supporter of this government, and the bullying rhetoric spouted by ministers is pushing me towards striking. They should be looking for conciliation rather than escalation. On the other hand, the RMT, of which I’m a member, seems hellbent on a 1980s-style political barney. Some parts of the railway, those non-safety-critical parts, need modernising.
Passengers’ needs have changed, yes, but we must not be in a rush to digitise everything, leaving behind those in society for whom the very thought of an app fills them with worry and leaves them excluded.
Having said all this, it matters not one bit if I strike or not; the signallers striking means trains can’t run. If the government are serious about dealing with this then they need to sit down with the Network Rail employees and resolve their issues as a priority, and let the rest of us negotiate with our respective employers.
Engineering apprentice, 24, Network Rail, Yorkshire
I fully support the strike as I can see how hard my team works with limited resources. Our department is currently not only carrying out their own maintenance duties but also doing the work of other depots that are short-staffed. Failing train operating companies are providing substandard services at inflated ticket costs, as their primary function is to generate profit for their shareholders and not necessarily to provide the best service at the best price.
I don’t have to do overtime but pretty much everyone I work with does, once or twice a week, which admittedly you get good rates for. Morale is OK on my team, but people in my department do bigger projects and so get paid more than people in other typical maintenance roles, where pay is pretty average. They’re going to be struggling a lot with the rising cost of living.
I think this isn’t only about rail, most workers in this country are already doing enough and shouldn’t be struggling to get by. In my view this strike is an opportunity for these issues to become a broader talking point about fairness, and about an economy that works for the people.
Maintenance worker, 35, south-west England
Personally I have mixed emotions about the strikes. I think it’s right to ask for a pay rise under the same conditions – Network Rail hasn’t raised pay since 2019. If you have low pay, lots of people will leave. We’ve got one of the safest railways in Europe, but if certain conditions change it could quickly become one of the most dangerous. The new terms and conditions are suggesting Network Rail would pay some safety-critical staff about £22,000, which would include nights and unsocial work and using their own vehicles and fuel to reach different bases they’d be booked on to.
On the other hand, I was hopeful of leaving the railway on the voluntary redundancy scheme, which was supposed to be available to everyone before the union put a stop to it for the maintenance grades. The unions should compromise and allow people to leave; a lot of us in maintenance want to. Working nights and weekends and what that does to your body – is that actually worth it for not much more than an Amazon driver makes, working Monday to Friday?
Overall I think the strikes are a fair idea and I have joined them, but I also feel there has to be change and Network Rail has to cut costs, with falling passenger numbers and all.