Ten weeks ago, Mark Harper was appointed transport secretary. He said his top priority was to end the long and bitter tangle of rail disputes between Network Rail, the train operators and the unions on pay, job security and working arrangements.
Yet today, another round of rail industry walk-outs has begun, leaving Britain with only a skeleton service for the first working week of the new year – in the biggest national strike since the 1980s.
More than 40,000 members of the RMT union employed by Network Rail and 14 train operators are stopping work for 48 hours on 3 and 4 January, and again on 6 and 7 January.
For Network Rail staff, it will mean 20 days of strikes over 200 days since midsummer 2022.
On the intervening day, Thursday 5 January, thousands of train drivers belonging to the Aslef union and working for 15 train operators will strike.
The white-collar Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) will take localised industrial action.
The unions say they want a fair pay rise, assurances on job protection and no changes to working conditions without negotiation
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators, said: “On RMT strike days, around half of the network will shut down, with only about 20 per cent of normal services running.
“Thousands of specially trained and fully qualified back-up staff will step in during the RMT walkouts on 3-4 and 6-7 January to keep vital services running for those who need them.”
Key intercity links and commuter lines will see limited services between 7.30am and 6.30pm.
On the East Coast main line eight trains will run each way from both Edinburgh and Leeds to London, while passengers from London to Gatwick airport and Brighton can choose from four services per hour.
But most of the networks in Wales and Scotland will be completely closed. Key cities including Aberdeen, Lincoln, Portsmouth and Stoke-on-Trent will see no trains all week.
Serious disruption is also expected on Sunday 8 January as services resume.
The intervening strike by Aslef’s train drivers will result in even fewer services running, with some key operators running no trains – though passengers in Wales will actually get a better service on the day.
By the end of the latest stoppages, members of the RMT working for Network Rail will have been on strike for 20 days over the course of 200 days.
Daniel Mann, director of industry operations at the Rail Delivery Group, said: “No one wants to see these strikes go ahead, and we can only apologise to passengers and to the many businesses who will be hit by this unnecessary and damaging disruption.
“We would advise passengers to only travel if it is absolutely necessary during this period, allow extra time and check when their first and last train will depart.
“This dispute will only be resolved by agreeing the long-overdue reforms to working arrangements needed to put the industry on a sustainable footing.”
But the RMT union said it had made “best efforts over the Christmas period” to continue negotiations and blamed ministers for “blocking” a settlement.
The general secretary, Mick Lynch, said: “We have worked with the rail industry to reach successful negotiated settlements ever since privatisation in 1993. And we have achieved deals across the network in 2021 and 2022 where the DfT has no involvement.
“Yet in this dispute, there is an unprecedented level of ministerial interference, which is hamstringing rail employers from being able to negotiate a package of measures with us, so we can settle this dispute.
“We will continue our industrial action campaign while we work towards a negotiated resolution.”
Nigel Harris, managing editor of Rail magazine and a senior figure in the railway, said: “Government is playing with fire with the future of the rail industry.”
Mr Harper, who last year became the UK’s third transport secretary in seven weeks, told GB News: ““The government’s going to continue to work really hard to try and help bring the two sides together to get this resolved.
“I know how frustrating this is for commuters, and the danger is that it puts people off using the railways, which is a bit of self-harm on the part of the rail unions that haven’t settled this dispute.”
Passengers with advance tickets for between 3-7 January can use their ticket the day before the specified date, or up to and including Tuesday 10 January.