National rail strike: Threat of first walkout in 20 years moves a step closer in major dispute over pensions

The first national rail strike since 1994 has moved a step closer with more than 40,000 mainline rail staff to be balloted in an escalating dispute over pensions.

Staff at each of the UK’s 23 train operating companies from Southeastern to Scotrail will be balloted for industrial action, with walkouts threatened from the end of August.

Rail industry chiefs immediately condemned the move as “premature” saying there are “firm proposals” to address the pensions deficit.

A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents all the train operators, said: “The last thing passengers or rail workers want is the misery of a strike.

“It would be premature in the extreme for RMT to begin hugely disruptive industrial action when conversations about how to address the pension deficit are still going on.”

He added: “Having worked with unions, we have put forward to government a firm proposal to address this deficit in a way that is fair and sustainable for staff, taxpayers and operators, and we await government’s response.” 

Mick Cash, the RMT union leader who today ordered the ballot, warned he would combine the walkouts with those planned on the Tube to cause maximum disruption.

In a separate dispute over job cuts 2,000 key Tube staff, including those in the signal and power departments and who have the power to halt the network, began voting on Wednesday.

Union leaders are confident of “overwhelming support” in both ballots backing the strike call.

Mainline railways are used by more than three million passengers a day and the Tube by over four million.

The last national rail strikes took place more than two decades ago when striking signal workers repeated brought the network to a halt over a three month period.

The dispute cost UK business hundreds of millions of pounds, damaged the UK’s reputation worldwide and regularly prevented people from getting to work or carry out their regular daily lives.

Mr Cash said the rail ballot would now go ahead after the Government and the train companies “failed to respond” to demands from the union for assurances that current pension arrangements would not be undermined.

He said: “The union has not received the cast-iron assurances it has been seeking and as a result the preparations for a national rail strike vote are now being put in hand.

“If it takes the first national rail strike in a generation to defend our members pensions then so be it. We will not tolerate a position where Chris Grayling (the Transport Secretary) and the train companies are playing fast and loose with rail pension rights and RMT members will not be left to pay the price for the collapsing chaos of the rail franchising system.”

“Any such attack will be met with a campaign of coordinated industrial action across the rail industry to defend pensions and in the absence of a satisfactory response from Government and the train operators that is where we are now heading.”

RMT lawyers are today putting the finishing touches to the ballot arrangements which have to comply with highly complex strike legislation – any infringement would be challenged by the rail industry in the High Court, as has happened before.

The union has not yet announced the ballot start date but is said to be “soon.” 

Voting would take three to four weeks and the union must then give two weeks’ notice of industrial action.

The threat of a looming national rail strike was revealed by the Evening Standard in April after transport giant Stagecoach was banned from bidding on three rail franchises – including Southeastern serving London’s most crowded commuter routes – after allegedly failing to meet pension rules.

The Pensions Regulator has estimated the UK rail industry needs an additional £5-6 billion to plug the pensions shortfall.