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Aslef boss says next round of strikes will be ‘incredibly damaging’ but government is to blame

Driving force: Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, at Brighton station (Simon Calder )
Driving force: Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, at Brighton station (Simon Calder )

As rail firms prepare for the next wave of industrial action by train drivers, the boss of the Aslef union has warned: “It’s going to get messier. It’s going to get worse.”

Train drivers will refuse to work overtime from 29 January to 6 February, with rolling regional walk-outs planned between 30 January and 5 February. Millions of passengers will have travel plans wrecked by the latest spell of disruption. It is part of a long and bitter dispute over pay and working arrangements that has seen sporadic walk-outs since July 2022.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, said some members have not had a pay rise for five years – and ministers have refused to engage with the union for a year.

He told The Independent: “Any industrial action is incredibly damaging, but after 18 months out on strike, and after a year with no one in the government or the [train operating] companies talking to us, we are forced to raise the profile of our issues.

“We’ve done 14 pay deals in the last 12 months. We don’t have a problem in Scotland, Wales, freight, open access, Eurostar, the Tube or elsewhere in doing deals. It’s a political issue.”

Mr Whelan has previously said he does not expect the dispute to end until there is a change of government. But he told The Independent: “Just leaving to a new government to deal with I don’t think is an option.

“We want to resolve it tomorrow. We don’t want to wait till November. I don’t imagine [for] an incoming government their first priority is going to be us. There will be other things they have to do.”

The first day of strikes, on Tuesday 30 January, will hit the rail firms in southeast England. It coincides with the first day for which half-price “Rail Sale” tickets have been sold.

The government is pumping millions into a promotion on advance tickets. But the Aslef general secretary called the initiative “a crock of crap”.

Mr Whelan said: “If you want to get people back and using public transport you’ve got to reduce costs for the stuff they do day to day – not just reduce cost for those that have got disposable income, that can afford tickets to go on holiday at weekends.”

Rail fares in England that are set by the government will rise by 4.9 per cent in March.

The Independent has asked the Department for Transport (DfT) for a response to Mr Whelan’s assertions.

At the launch of the Great British Rail Sale, rail minister Huw Merriman told The Independent: “To everyone I say, think positively about the railways. Back the railways. Always think about the passenger.

“Every single day, everything I do is about what’s good for the passenger and what’s good for the railways.

“With regards to Aslef, the strikes just hold the railway back. We believe a fair and reasonable offer is there on the table for Aslef if they put it to their members.

“These are train drivers that paid an average £60,000 for a 35-hour, four-day week, That pay deal would take them up to £65,000.

“We hope that they will take the opportunity to take it. Then we can all talk about the positives of rail. So I’d urge everyone in the railway to come together and talk up railways rather than actually engage in industrial action.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “With passenger revenues not having recovered since the pandemic, the taxpayer has had to prop up the railways with £12bn in the past year alone – these strikes will not change the need for urgent workplace reforms that Aslef continue to block.”

Aslef is unhappy that the government has insisted that any pay rise must be contingent on wide-ranging reforms to working arrangements.

Members of the RMT union have accepted a no-strings pay deal with separate negotiations on changes to working practices conducted with individual train operators.