City groups have called for an urgent resolution to rail strikes in the capital after it was revealed the transport secretary and union leaders have not met once in 2023.
Businesses are already licking their wounds from yet another batch of chaos this September, as coinciding strikes from the ASLEF and RMT unions disrupted rail services in the first week of the month.
Negotiations have reached a near complete deadlock this year, despite repeat calls for a resolution from business groups in the city and the hospitality sector – which has had well over £100m written off as a result of the disruption.
A resolution looked possible in January, but there have already been over 25 RMT strikes since and union leaders have accused the government of failing to show up at the negotiating table.
Speaking exclusively to City A.M. Transport Secretary Mark Harper said “I mean, people go on about this, this mythical coming to the table and this table. Well, I’d say there’s an offer on the table.”
“The train operating companies have made a fair and reasonable pay offer of 5 per cent last year and 4 per cent this year with some necessary reform. It’s on the table, the trade unions need to put it to their members. They haven’t done that yet, for reasons that I don’t understand.”
People go on about this, this mythical coming to the table and this table
Harper said he hadn’t met with the opposite side for “some time since the beginning of the dispute.”
City A.M. understands the last meeting between the Department for Transport (DfT) and the unions was on the 9th of January, when rail minister Huw Merriman met with the RMT’s general secretary Mick Lynch.
Both ASLEF and the RMT said their last interactions with Harper were even further in the past, in December and November of last year respectively.
Harper told City A.M. that he hadn’t met with the unions for so long because the rail negotiations were not for him to resolve.
“They’re between the train operating companies and the union leaders, there is an offer on the table which the union leaders need to put to their members. There isn’t more money available.”
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), the body representing train companies in the UK, is currently responsible for negotiating on behalf of rail operators.
Mick Lynch though argued that Harper holds the “keys to unlock this dispute,” with the DfT contractually setting the remit for what the RDG can offer to bring an end to the rolling rail strikes.
“We haven’t met Mark Harper since November,” he told City A.M.
“Although we would welcome such a meeting, he needs to at the very least unshackle the RDG so they can put forward a revised offer in order for us to take steps to reach a negotiated settlement.”
General secretary Peter Pendle of the TSSA, who resolved their dispute earlier in the year, told City A.M. it was “government ministers that were pulling the strings” when they were in negotiations. “The RDG, which was supposed to represent the train companies, wouldn’t ever give us an offer without checking with the DfT first.”
Today’s revelations prompted dismay from London business groups, who are desperate for a resolution to rail strikes ahead of Christmas.
James Watkins, head of policy and public impact at London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) told City A.M. that members were feeling “let down by the passivity and lack of efforts to resolve this dispute which has led to a dearth of income for too many small businesses.”
“In business we can come together to find solutions – the Government and the trade unions must now do the same.”
Adam Tyndall, programme director for transport at BusinessLDN, urged the both sides to “get around the table and reach an agreement so businesses and Londoners can plan for the future with confidence.”
Tyndall warned that “with the Christmas season fast approaching, the hospitality and retail sectors in particular” will be wary of the impact of future walk-outs, after “well over a year” of disruption and rail strikes.
The RDG argued it had made offers to both the RMT and ASLEF, the latter of which would “have taken an average driver’s salary up to £65,000 for a 4-day week.”
“Sadly, neither union has put our offers to their membership, with the RMT having repeatedly refused their membership a vote on the offer of 13 per cent for the lowest paid, which could easily settle this dispute.”