Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has warned that a national railway strike could give a “heart attack” to a network already on life support.
Mr Shapps also confirmed to Sky News’ Kay Burley that freight traffic would take priority over passenger trains, to ensure shelves were well stocked, should the industrial action continue.
A union ballot of more than 40,000 RMT union members on strike over jobs, wages and conditions – which could be the biggest since the industry was privatized in the 1990s – ends on Tuesday.
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Mr Shapps insisted reforms were needed and said taxpayers had already paid £16billion to support the railways during the pandemic.
He said the threat of a strike was “very, very premature” and responded to calls for a wage thaw by saying “no one is talking about wages staying where they were”.
But he added: “We have to balance railway workers with the needs of doctors, nurses and teachers and the rest of the public service, so it’s important that we strike that right balance.
“The taxpayer has invested £16billion, or £600 per household whether you use the trains or not, and we’ve done that to keep the trains running.
“Nobody lost their job during the coronavirus – but we need to reform our railways.
“I seek to solve this problem, I want the unions to do it too, I urge them not to call a strike.
“I think that would be completely counterproductive for a railroad that is frankly on life support and could give him a heart attack.”
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Confirming that freight transport would be prioritized in the event of a strike, he said: ‘Freight and distribution and the supply train are absolutely essential… making sure energy and food distribution takes place nationally is very important and of course we will prioritize that.”
Mr Shapps said the railways had lost a quarter of passengers and revenue – and ‘have not been reformed for many, many years’.
“I eventually want to build a bigger railway, but I have to work cooperatively with the unions on this, and I really hope they do.”
“We demand job security”
However, comments by Mr Shapps in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, in which he said ministers were considering drafting laws which would make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff were working, sparked anger.
The ballot for industrial action involves RMT members from Network Rail and 15 rail operating companies.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told PA News: ‘We are asking for job security and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancy, and we will not accept the imposition of wages and conditions detrimental.”
A strike by Network Rail flagmen could have a major impact, drastically reducing the number of services.
Tim Shoveller, Regional Managing Director of Network Rail, said: “We know how important a pay rise is for our employees, and we want to give a pay rise.
“As a public body, it is important that any wage increase is one that the taxpayer and passengers can afford.
“We continue to talk with our unions to find pay solutions, and will do everything we can to avoid damaging industrial action which would damage the industry’s recovery from the pandemic, cost millions of pounds and undermine our ability pay the raises we want to make.”
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group warned against “arranging premature industrial action, which would disrupt the lives of passengers and jeopardize the recovery of the industry”.