The UK’s best-known rail union has said it will have “no hesitation” in supporting industrial action if ministers press ahead with reported plans for a two-year pay freeze for rail workers.
Transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris is understood to have written to the bosses of the UK’s 22 passenger rail companies warning that there is no budget to increase wages for their 62,000 workers.
In the letter he said the subsidies being pumped into the industry were “not sustainable”. Passenger numbers have fallen to around 15% of what would normally be expected, causing a huge drop in revenues.
Rail companies were effectively nationalised last March when franchises were suspended. The rescue deal was extended in October, when emergency recovery contracts were agreed with rail operators ranging from six to 18 months.
Official estimates said the taxpayer bailout of the railways will exceed £10bn in the year to April, and ministers and rail bosses appear to have accepted that the two-year pay freeze is an inevitable consequence of the position that the industry finds itself in. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, announced a public sector pay freeze last November with the exception of NHS workers.
Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union, reacted with anger to the news. “Transport workers who are risking their lives keeping our country moving have found out they have been stabbed in the back by the government who have extended the public sector pay freeze to the transport sector. At the same time it’s business as usual for the private companies who will continue to be able to rake in profits.
“RMT will have no hesitation in supporting national coordinated action to deliver our members the pay rise they deserve,” he warned.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said the government had come up with an unprecedented support package to keep services running and protect frontline jobs.
“It would be unfair to increase the burden on taxpayers by funding rail industry pay rises, and we would only consider increases in exceptional circumstances. We are immensely grateful to everyone that has worked so hard to keep the railway running, but our focus must be protecting jobs, services and taxpayers through this unprecedented period,” he said.
The Rail Delivery Group, which represents the train operating companies, said it was “to be expected” that the government was examining all options to ensure the railway was financially sustainable.
“We recognise the huge contribution that our people have made in keeping workers moving during the pandemic and our priority is ensuring the railway is well positioned to catalyse the future recovery of our local communities,” it said in a statement.
Like other key workers, train staff have faced a tough year, despite the drop in passenger numbers. In January Great Western Railway was forced to cut planned train services after a number of staff contracted Covid. Other rail firms have suffered similar problems over the last 12 months.