Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has warned that a national rail strike could give a “heart attack” to a network already on life support.
Mr Shapps also confirmed to Sky News’s Kay Burley that freight traffic would be prioritised ahead of passenger trains, to ensure that shelves are kept stocked, should the industrial action go ahead.
A union ballot of more than 40,000 members of the RMT union on the strike over jobs, pay, and conditions – which could be the biggest since the industry was privatised in the 1990s – closes on Tuesday.
Mr Shapps insisted that reforms were needed and said taxpayers had already contributed £16bn to support the railways during the pandemic.
He said the threat of a strike was “very, very premature” and responded to the call for pay to be unfrozen by saying that “no one’s talking about pay staying where it was”.
But he added: “We do have to balance rail workers with the needs of doctors and nurses and teachers and the rest of the public service, so it is important that we get that balance right.
“The taxpayer has put in £16bn, that’s £600 per family household, whether you use the trains or not, and we’ve done that to keep the trains running.
“No one lost their jobs during coronavirus – but we do need to reform our railways.
“I’m looking to get this resolved, I want the unions to do that as well, I urge them not to call strikes.
“I think it would be completely counterproductive to a railway which frankly is on life support and that could give it a heart attack.”
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Confirming that freight transport would be prioritised in the event of a strike, he said: “Freight and distribution and the supply train are absolutely critical… making sure that distribution both of energy and food nationally takes place is very important and of course we’ll prioritise that.”
Mr Shapps said the railways had lost a quarter of passengers and income – and “haven’t been reformed for many, many years”.
“I want to build up a bigger railway ultimately, but I need to work in cooperation with the unions on that, and I really hope that they’ll do that.”
‘We are asking for job security’
However, comments by Mr Shapps in a Sunday Telegraph interview, in which he said ministers are looking at drawing up laws which would make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff are working, have sparked anger.
The ballot for industrial action involves RMT members at Network Rail and 15 train operating companies.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told the PA News agency: “We are asking for job security and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, and we will not accept imposition of detrimental pay and conditions.”
A strike by Network Rail signallers could have a major impact, slashing the number of services.
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s regional managing director, said: “We know how important a pay increase is for our people, and we want to give a pay rise.
“As a public body, it is important that any pay increase is one the taxpayer and passengers can afford.
“We continue to talk with our trades unions to find solutions on pay, and will do everything we can to avoid damaging industrial action which would harm the industry’s recovery from the pandemic, cost millions of pounds and undermine our ability to afford the pay increases we want to make.”
A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group warned against “staging premature industrial action, which would disrupt passengers’ lives and put the industry’s recovery at risk”.