The rail industry is entering final talks to avoid Christmas disruption in the UK

British rail unions and train operators held final talks on Monday aimed at avoiding strikes before Christmas, after the rejection of an offer of weekend pay deepened the long-running dispute.

The RMT met with train companies less than 24 hours after they rejected an offer of improved pay which was conditional on sweeping reforms which Britain’s biggest rail union said would leave the railways “understaffed”.

The smaller union TSSA, which represents travel and transport workers, rejected a similar offer on Sunday and has also held fresh talks with the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators.

RMT members began their strike on the rail network in June, but hundreds of thousands of workers across the public and private sectors are now following suit. Nurses, postal workers and university lecturers will strike in the run-up to Christmas; teachers and junior doctors are voted on industrial action; and ambulance workers are ready to announce dates for walkouts.

Although the offer from the train companies appeared to have intensified the conflict, there was some hope that the worst impact of the strikes could be avoided if the unions were able to reach an agreement in a separate clash with Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain’s railway tracks and infrastructure.

Union leaders met on Monday to discuss the Network Rail offer and disruption next week could be eased if unions agreed to put the body’s deal to members and suspend the strikes.

Network Rail has offered a 5 per cent pay rise this year and 4 per cent in 2022, and a guarantee that there will be no forced job losses until January 2025, but also demands significant changes in working practices in return.

The first of four 48-hour strikes across Network Rail and 14 train operators is due to start on 13 December. A further two-day strike will take place on 16-17. December, 3-4 January and 6-7 January.

Train companies and Network Rail said any deal must be struck by the end of Monday to avoid disruption next week as they work out timetables and rosters well in advance.

The offers to the unions from RDG included a wage increase of 4 percent for each of 2021 and 2022, as well as guarantees of no forced redundancies before April 2024.

But both the RMT and TSSA said the offers were linked to unacceptable changes to the operation of the railways, including mass closures of ticket offices and a widespread move to “driver-only operation” – where drivers, rather than guards, operate the doors on all carriages.

Union leaders said these proposed changes to conductors’ responsibilities were particularly inflammatory and had been included at the last minute.

While driver-operated doors are already in place across 45 per cent of the rail network, unions have historically fought hard against the changes, which were at the heart of a damaging year-long battle with Southern Rail in 2016 and 2017.

Christian Wolmar, a railway analyst and historian, said it was a mistake to put “a whole series of conditions” on the pay offer. “Wages and productivity should be kept apart,” he said.

A union leader said RDG negotiators had appeared “embarrassed” by parts of the deal, which had no chance of being accepted.

Ministers and the rail industry say they need to bring in far-reaching changes to working practices to fill an economic black hole caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and a shift to remote working.

The Government spent £13.3bn to support the railways in the year to March 2022, figures released last week showed.

Downing Street said: “We continue to urge the RMT to think again. There is still time.

“We believe it is the right offer. It is a significant improvement compared to what they were offered before”.

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