Last week, a pay dispute involving the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), ScotRail’s largest, was finally settled, averting threatened walkouts every Friday and Saturday in December up to and including Christmas Eve.
But two days earlier, the opposite happened in a separate pay and conditions dispute between the RMT and track body Network Rail and 14 other train operators, including cross-Border firms LNER and Avanti West Coast.
The union announced a further eight strikes lasting into January – on top of the eight staged so far – because of the lack of an improved offer from Network Rail or a “meaningful” offer from the train companies.
Although avoiding the immediate festive period, the stoppages called for December 13, 14, 16 and 17 and January 3, 4, 6 and 7 will affect huge numbers of travellers in the busy pre-Christmas period – myself included.
However, there are signs of hope for a settlement, although I must add the significant caveat that what happens on the railways is often very unpredictable.
First, the RMT upping the stakes in the ScotRail dispute by announcing eight strikes in December seemed to have helped concentrate minds towards a settlement.
Second, there have been more positive noises of late from both sides in the Britain-wide dispute, with UK transport secretary Mark Harper at least giving the impression of being more conciliatory than his combative predecessor Grant Shapps, agreeing with the RMT the dispute had gone on far too long and saying he saw scope for agreement.
In addition, a meeting has been arranged for Friday between the union and new UK rail minister Huw Merriman, who will bring a new perspective of the dispute from his experience as chair of the Commons transport committee until last month.
On the downside, the issues involved appear to be more complicated than mere pay, such as Network Rail’s insistence on more efficient working practices in the face of a more expensive post-pandemic railway. However, it may turn out there is a price for everything – and we might just be waiting for the right offer.