Thousands of rail passengers were today enduring another day of severe disruption, as rail unions began a third 48-hour strike that reduced services on one of Britain’s busiest commuter lines to skeletal levels.
The National Express East Anglia (NXEA) dispute could get worse, with unions threatening to call further strikes on the company’s routes amid claims negotiations were becoming “increasingly fractious and unproductive”.
Eleventh-hour talks aimed at averting chaos on services out of London’s Liverpool Street station broke down last night, with the unions and management blaming each other for the failure to settle the dispute over pay and conditions.
The walkout by three unions – the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, the train drivers’ union, Aslef, and the Transport Salaried Staff Association – means just 5% of services are running between Liverpool Street and Stansted airport, Norwich, Colchester, Southend and Cambridge. More than 200,000 passengers normally use the service each day.
Negotiations at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) made some progress, but NXEA said Aslef had backed out of a deal at the last minute.
The company said it had improved its pay offer to a 1.5% increase this year and a minimum of 2% in 2010 with “no strings attached”.
“We have improved our offer, putting more cash on the table but, after reaching what we believed to be a deal, Aslef withdrew their agreement,” Andrew Chivers, the NXEA managing director, said.
“Aslef are continuing to disrupt the lives of thousands of people completely unnecessarily.
“We have asked them, as a sign of good faith, to halt the strikes – they refused. We have asked them to table the improved offer to staff – they refused.
“They have shown a complete disregard for our customers and the current economic climate, with expectations that are out of touch with what most workers in the UK are currently experiencing.”
Chivers said the union’s statement threatening further strikes next month was “absolutely disgraceful” and the company was “shocked and appalled at their behaviour”.
However, Keith Norman, the Aslef leader, said: “The company seems to live on another planet”.
Aslef said it would call further strike dates beyond the next 48-hour stoppage, planned for 20-21 August.
A hardship fund has been set up for the strikers and the union says it is prepared to “dig in”.
An RMT spokesman said the strike had been “solidly supported”, adding: “NXEA has only been able to run about 100 out of 1,800 trains in the first two stoppages and, with TSSA joining in, there are even fewer services operating today.
“The progress that was made yesterday was painfully slow. Channels of communication are still open and we are pushing for a resumption of talks.”