Rail reforms being considered fit into four broad sections: pensions reform, reducing headcount, agreeing new pay deals and plans to shut hundreds of train station ticket offices.
A Government source says: “It’s very strongly felt… that we need to create a railway system that’s sustainable for the future. We’ve got to create a railway that works for everyone. And that includes all the passengers and taxpayers that have supported it until this point. We’ve got to do that if we want to be in any way realistic about having a railway that lasts for generations to come. “
Sources within industry and Whitehall say the RMT in particular, has “jumped the gun” by balloting for industrial action before meaningful discussions have commenced.
Nevertheless, the threat could not be more real. Another senior railway source says: “Inflation has suddenly gone rampant. And that has, unfortunately, collided with the first time in almost 30 years [a situation] where the Government is directly bankrolling all the elements of the [rail] industry.
“Union bosses are under a lot of pressure from rail workers; who are not used to having pay freezes. They’ll get a stonking send [to strike]. “
Operators fear that once again they could be the Government’s patsy. During a long-running dispute with the RMT several years ago bosses were criticized by Chris Grayling, the then transport secretary, for failing to break the deadlock.
The hope is that Whitehall realizes things are different this time around.
“This is ultimately being driven by the Government,” says a source at one operator. “It requires really clear political commitment. It is absolutely essential to success or failure, that the Government, if it starts down this road of pushing through the changes that we all think the industry needs… drive those through.
“If that is withdrawn halfway through when the going gets tough, what you will have is unions that are stronger,” they add. “If they bottle it halfway, we’re in a bad place.”
A source at another operator adds: “Who is going to take the blame? This is going to turn into a blame game. Is your local train company going to end up being the next P&O Ferries in the eyes of the everyday commuter? “
A government source responds: “There’s lots of work being done behind the scenes. This is something that has been thought about all the way up to the top of Government.
“Downing Street is involved in the planning. That drives home the point about how serious this is being taken. “
It is thought that the Government’s plans for the strikes will feature prominently at this week’s meeting of the Cabinet.
What complicates matters further is that it is not only the train operators that are facing industrial action. Crucially, workers at Network Rail, the state-backed owner of tracks, stations and other key infrastructure, could walk out over plans to cut 2,500 jobs.
While operators will still be able to run skeleton services on strike days, the specter of signal workers downing tools has more serious repercussions with freight and passenger services grinding to a standstill nationwide.
“The big challenge for the Government will be a Network Rail strike, which, frankly, is why there hasn’t been one since 1994. That’s the one where the Government’s nerve is going to be tested,” a source says.
The Prime Minister knows that the country could quickly turn on him if widespread strikes drag on. Despite strong rhetoric internally, the fear is that Boris Johnson will cave under the weight of public opinion.
“We’ve seen this Government say that on lots of issues and then 36 hours later, have a change of heart,” the source adds.
Train operators, Network Rail and the Government fear that summer of chaos could easily bleed into autumn as both sides take increasingly entrenched positions.
“The danger is that once we get into this dispute, anything that sounds like a reasonable offer – [union leaders] will struggle to sell to their members, ”the source says. “That’s why this is going to be a hell of a fight.”