Destructive rail strikes are harming Yorkshire

Secretary of State – 18 August

Trade unions, government and businesses do not have to be at loggerheads. During the pandemic, this Government protected millions of jobs and tens of thousands of businesses with an economic package endorsed by unions and business groups. When P&O Ferries shamefully sacked 800 of their staff with no warning, unions, maritime businesses, and my department stepped in to defend affected workers, offer alternative jobs, and give seafarers the employment rights they deserve. And with our railways, I’ve welcomed the fantastic news that TSSA’s management grade members have accepted Network Rail’s reasonable and fair pay deal. This amounts to a 4% pay rise and increased job security for staff. It means that in the face of future strikes, we will still be able to run services for passengers whilst minimising disruption.

This Government is not anti-union; we’re anti-militancy. When unions work positively and productively with industry, agreements can be reached which benefit not just workers, but passengers and the wider network. That collaboration is needed now more than ever.  The railways face falling revenues and passenger numbers as well as an irreversible shift towards hybrid working. If the railways are to survive and thrive in this new normal, they must modernise. For example, Sunday services cannot be dependent on the goodwill of drivers to volunteer for shifts. Ticket offices that average one transaction per hour are a waste of resource. Track maintenance technology remains years behind other sectors, which is leading to avoidable delays. The TSSA deal means we’re a step closer to remedying these problems. But when presented with a similar pay deal, other unions didn’t even bother putting it to their members. Instead of good faith negotiation, we hear the threat of strikes. And what could be common ground quickly turns to scorched earth.

This hard-headedness is why the North will face another wave of strikes on the 18th and 20th August.  Avanti West Coast, Crosscountry, Hull Trains and LNER will be the operators impacted. Millions of passengers across the North will face disruption. The human costs of reckless industrial action are paid for by the hospital appointments missed, the businesses closed due to staff shortage, and the people having to use up their annual leave as they cannot get to work. But there are economic costs too. Yorkshire, God’s own country, is rightly a visitors’ paradise, but tourists will have no option but to cancel plans during the strikes. The Ebor Race festival, due to welcome 300,000 visitors, is just one of many events, from Premier League football to music concerts, that stand to lose out on paying customers. And yet, in the face of this bleak picture, West Yorkshire Mayor, Tracy Brabin, and South Yorkshire Mayor, Oliver Coppard, have been found wanting. They will not condemn the strike action, nor stand up for the millions that will face the consequences of our railways grinding to a halt.

Unbelievably, they do, however, claim that this Government is not investing enough in our railways. I would gently point them to the Integrated Rail Plan – which will see £96 billion invested into high speed rail, electrified lines and faster trains across the North. South Yorkshire alone is receiving £570 million from our sustainable transport settlements, which means more bus priority lanes in Sheffield and cycling and walking infrastructure in Barnsley. And because levelling up is also about devolving power, I’m delighted the newest devolution deal sees the creation of the York and North Yorkshire Combined Authority. The region’s Mayor, when elected, will have over half a billion pounds to address local priorities including transport, education and affordable housing.

Rail strikes won’t work. With reform inevitable, industrial action will only cause more misery and exacerbate the cost of living squeeze many are facing. The TSSA deal shows that unions can reach agreement with employers; that compromise can be achieved for the greater good; that many millions of ordinary workers do not have to suffer from the militant tendencies of a few. I urge parties to come together to agree a new deal forward, so we can get on with building a railway network all of us can be proud of.