The biggest rail modern strike planned for this summer could see empty shelves in supermarkets across the country.
Contingency plans are being drawn up to keep goods moving as 40,000 train drivers prepare to take the decision over whether or not to stage a walk-out.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) is balloting members covering National Rail and 15 train firms over pay and conditions, with voting due to close on Tuesday.
Union bosses have also announced they will extend the ballot to Scotland after a ‘derisory’ 2.2% pay offer which they described as a ‘kick in the teeth’.
The RMT has not decided when the strike would take place, though it must give two weeks notice under the law.
Another rail union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), has warned of a ‘summer of discontent’, with similar action on the way unless pay disputes are resolved.
Boris Johnson is due to hold crunch talks with the chancellor and transport secretary to plan for the fallout of the strike, which is expected to impact freight trains carrying food and other goods to shops.
Ministers reportedly fear the blowback could be worse than the junior doctor walkout in 2015, which saw appointments cancelled and waiting lists increase.
Union bosses are open to structuring the strike so goods keep moving, according to the Times, but an unnamed official said ‘there is no doubt we face serious challenges’.
They said: ‘There is an awful lot of work going on behind the scenes including around what the timetable might look like.
‘One option is times of the day when only freight services operate.’
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has urged against what it describes as a ‘premature’ ballot but said it was drawing up contingency plans to try and lessen the effects of any potential strike.
A spokesperson accused the RMT of creating ‘damaging uncertainty’, adding: ‘The pandemic was an unprecedented shock for the railway, we now need to adapt to new travel patterns while taking no more than our fair share from the taxpayer.’
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: ‘Railway workers have had to contend with pay freezes, the prospect of losing their jobs and repeated attacks on their terms and conditions.
‘Removing 2,500 safety-critical jobs from Network Rail will spell disaster for the public, make accidents more likely and will increase the possibility of trains flying off the tracks.
‘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.’
He added: ‘A national rail strike will bring the country to a standstill, but our members’ livelihoods and passenger safety are our priorities.’
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.
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