Train strikes: Government to hold talks with unions in bid to avoid Christmas walkout

Business leaders have called for urgent action over train strikes amid warnings that a Christmas walkout could cause a crushing £300 million blow to London’s economy.

They urged rail unions, ministers and train operators to work together and negotiate a way to avoid the “debilitating” industrial action over the festive period.

More than 40,000 RMT members across Network Rail and 14 train operating companies will strike on December 13, 14, 16 and 17 and on January 3, 4, 6 and 7 in the dispute over jobs, terms and conditions and pay. There will also be an overtime ban from December 18 until January 2, making it more difficult for train companies to finalise timetables.

Simon French, chief economist at City brokers Panmure Gordon, estimated that across the UK the impact in December would total around £650 million, with a £550 million effect in January. London would account for about a quarter of the £1.2 billion combined loss of output — or around £300 million.

Businesses were hoping for a major boost this Christmas after the last two years were blighted by Covid. Pubs, clubs and restaurants were especially keen to cash in on the festive party season, coupled with the winter World Cup.

But strike action is set to fall on both semi-final match days. Muniya Barua, deputy chief executive at BusinessLDN, said: “Strikes in the run-up to Christmas and into New Year will be a hammer blow to hard-pressed businesses doing all they can to navigate the downturn.

“We’d urge all sides to work together to avoid further chaos on the network, which will make a tough economic situation even worse. After several disrupted Christmases in a row, Londoners and businesses deserve much better.”

Simon Thomas, executive chairman of the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square, said he is already receiving calls from customers warning of reduced numbers at planned Christmas celebrations.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “Scrooge would take his hat off to the strikers. They have a bewildering, bloody-minded resolve to cancel business recovery.”

Richard Burge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce, said: “Rail strikes are a lose-lose and another round during the festive period will see London and its businesses suffer for no good reason.”

Transport Secretary Mark Harper is preparing for talks with rail union chiefs this week. It will be the first time he has met with them since he was appointed to the role last month.

Government sources said Mr Harper will “do all he can” to help facilitate a deal, but negotiations are “ultimately between the train operators and the unions”.

Mayor Sadiq Khan said the rail strikes were “concerning”. He said: “Many people come from outside London - the day trippers - to the theatre and to spend money in our shops.

“I would encourage Mark Harper, I would encourage the private train operating companies, I would encourage the RMT to get round the table and resolve this.”

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride told TalkTV: “The Secretary of State is actually meeting the rail union leaders later this week, so there is that dialogue occurring.” But he added that “the essential discussions have to occur between the rail operating companies, Network Rail and the unions”.

Nurses, civil servants and postal workers have also voted in favour of strikes, and teachers are being balloted. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned his Cabinet yesterday that Britain faced a “challenging” winter of strikes, inflation and the NHS backlog, while food and energy costs have soared and inflation is at a 40-year high of 11.1 per cent.

The Government said contingency plans had been drawn up to “mitigate” the challenges expected over the coming months.

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said industrial action was called after talks with the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the train operating companies, broke down. The RMT said operators cancelled a meeting on Monday with just 55 minutes’ notice.

Mr Lynch today said: “This whole process has become a farce that only the new Secretary of State can resolve.”

“In the meantime, our message to the public is we are sorry to inconvenience you, but we urge you to direct your anger and frustration at the government and railway employers.”

Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, said “progress has been made over these last two weeks” but “we still have yet to find that breakthrough”.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “These strikes are not only damaging the economy but they’re cutting off people in need of urgent care, children going to school and hardworking families.”