Network Rail is on a collision course for a national strike if it goes ahead with plans to cut thousands of jobs just as the country emerges from the pandemic, the new general secretary of a transport union has warned.
Mick Lynch, 59, formerly assistant general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), was elected its leader this week after an 18-month internecine battle.
In his first interview in the job, he pledged to take on Network Rail over its plans for mass redundancies.
The state-controlled operator of the country’s railway infrastructure wants to shake up its workforce as part of reforms proposed in the Williams review that the government is due to publish this month.
Officials have confirmed Network Rail wants to modernise “institutionalised working practices” and introduce technology to cut the number of maintenance workers.
Lynch confirmed Network Rail has called a meeting with the union at the end of the month to detail its plans, which he believes will add up to a “major cutback in jobs”.
Network Rail employs about 27,000 maintenance workers and signalling engineers, 21,000 of which are members of the RMT, making up a quarter of the union’s total membership.
Sources believe the cuts Network Rail wants are between a quarter and one third of that workforce, equating to between 6,750 and 9,000 redundancies. Lynch said that Network Rail’s plans present railworkers with their greatest challenge since privatisation 25 years ago and the subsequent collapse of Railtrack, the predecessor company.
“We do not accept their agenda. Their changes are opportunistic and being carried out under the smokescreen of Covid-19,” Lynch told The Times, referring to the pandemic-related financial crisis on the railways, which have only survived after £10 billion of taxpayer bailouts and are expected to see another £4 billion funding shortfall this year.
“We are on a dispute footing. A dispute is inevitable. A ballot [for industrial action] is inevitable,” Lynch said. He said the cutting of maintenance workers puts the network’s safety at risk.
The Williams review is expected to propose the effective renationalisation of the industry, with private sector train operators put on restrictive Department for Transport management contracts and Network Rail broken up into its regional constituents.
The plan is for the railway to become “one system”, like the former British Rail, with an arm’s length organisation acting as the “guiding mind” in overall charge of one profit and loss account and balance sheet for the industry.
Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, is favourite to lead the new body. He has said of Network Rail’s need to reform: “Outdated practices and the impact of Covid-19 on passenger numbers show that the railway is not serving passengers, taxpayers or staff as well as it should.”