More than 40,000 railway workers will start voting on Tuesday on whether to strike in disputes over jobs and pay.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said a yes vote among its members could lead to the biggest rail strike in modern history.
The union said Network Rail is planning to cut at least 2,500 safety-critical maintenance jobs as part of a £2 billion reduction in spending, while workers at train operators have been subject to pay freezes and changes to their terms and conditions.
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The ballot closes on May 24, so strike action could begin in June.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Our ballot of 40,000 staff is a vital step in defending jobs, pay, conditions and safety standards on the railways.
“Network Rail, the train operating companies and the Government have set themselves on a collision course with RMT by their reckless cuts agenda and workers across the industry must vote ‘Yes’ in this upcoming ballot to protect themselves as well as ensure safe journeys for the travelling public.
“Railway workers have had to contend with pay freezes, the prospect of losing their jobs and repeated attacks on their terms and conditions.
“Train operating companies have praised our members for being key workers during the pandemic but have refused to keep staff pay in line with inflation and soaring living costs.
“As a result, thousands of railway workers have seen their living standards plummet and have run out of patience.”
The ballot will be among RMT members on Network Rail and Chiltern Railways, Cross Country Trains, Greater Anglia, LNER, East Midlands Railway, c2c, Great Western Railway, Northern Trains, South Eastern Railway, South Western Railway, Island Line, GTR (including Gatwick Express), Transpennine Express, Avanti West Coast, and West Midlands Trains.
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s regional director, said: “Our railway has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, and even as passenger numbers start to recover, we know travel habits and passenger demand have changed and the industry has to change too.
“We cannot keep relying on Government handouts, and so we must work together with train operators and our trades unions to save millions of pounds and deliver a more efficient railway.
“Our modernisation programme aims to build a sustainable future that delivers for passengers and creates better and safer jobs for our people.
“We would not consider any changes that would make the railway less safe.”
A Rail Delivery Group spokesman said: “The pandemic was an unprecedented shock for the railway, with the lowest passenger numbers in over 150 years and record levels of public funding to keep it running.
“Our whole focus now should be securing a thriving future for rail that adapts to new travel patterns and takes no more than its fair share from taxpayers, instead of staging premature industrial action which would disrupt passengers’ lives and put the industry’s recovery at risk.
“For the sake of our people and everyone who relies on our railway every day, we want the RMT to work with us to bring how we run our services up to date so that it is more reliable, more affordable and inspires more passengers back on board.”
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association has also warned of industrial action over the same issues.
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