The UK will prioritise safety critical goods – including food and products needed for the energy and construction industries – if the rail strikes go ahead and disrupt the wider network.
The government could be forced to reduce passenger services to make way for freight, causing significant disruption to travellers.
“We will have to prioritise freight and goods and energy supplies moving around,” transport secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC.
Government action is likely to be guided by whether the strike will go ahead, its potential size and duration. As most strikes don’t last longer than 24 consecutive hours, the disruption would be minimal.
Only a few consecutive days of industrial action would cause disruption and trigger the government’s response.
Closing today, the strike’s ballot was launched in protest after the RMT union accused government-owned railway company Network Rail of planning to cut around 2,500 maintenance jobs as part of a £2bn spending review.
The industrial action has been voted by more than 40,000 railway workers and if it passes the legal threshold it could begin as early as June, becoming the biggest railway strike in history.
But plans could be disrupted after a Downing Street spokesperson said the Prime Minister was not ruling out forcing a minimum number of workers to continue working during strikes.
“I think any disruption of this sort can have an impact on peoples’ lives and their ability to get to work. It would be deeply unfair when families are already suffering with some of those global [cost of living] challenges,” Number 10 said.
Currently drafted by Shapps, the legislation was initially promised in the 2019 election manifesto.