Rail strikes: SNP accuse UK Government of launching 'Tory culture war' as major bus operator says it cannot fill gap for passengers

The SNP have accused the UK Government of using this week’s crippling rail strikes to spearhead a “new Tory culture war” as one of Scotland’s major bus operators conceded it could not help fill the gap in services due to driver shortages.

First Bus – the UK‘s second largest regional bus operator – confirmed it would not be adding additional services in Scotland during strike action days as it battles a continuing driver shortage, leaving commuters with limited travel options.

Just five rail routes will operate in Scotland tomorrow, Thursday and Saturday between 7.30am and 6.30pm after the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union said talks with Network Rail had failed and pressed ahead with industrial action.

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It is set to be Britain’s biggest rail strike in more than 30 years.

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ScotRail issued a warning to passengers to expect serious disruption, urging people only to travel “if they really need to” on the limited services running this week.

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The dispute over pay and redundancies does not involve ScotRail staff, but the industrial action will affect signalling boxes – essential infrastructure without which the network cannot run.

UK transport secretary Grant Shapps warned RMT this week’s strikes would be a “huge act of self-harm” that could jeopardise the future of the industry.

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ScotRail will only operate on five routes during the strike action

He dismissed a call from the RMT union for the UK Government to intervene as a “stunt”, saying the union had been “gunning” for industrial action for weeks.

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But Labour said ministers needed to step in to prevent the network “grinding to a halt” in a dispute over pay, conditions and job losses.

SNP transport spokesperson Gavin Newlands accused the UK Government of purposefully trying to undermine unions by being unwilling to head to the negotiating table.

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He said: “Whether its tube strikes in Labour-run London or RMT strikes across Network Rail, it is imperative that these strikes aren't used as a political football to attack workers who are only trying to get a better deal for themselves during a Tory-made cost of living crisis.

First Bus will not be adding additional services during the RMT strike action next week. Picture: John Devlin
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“Sadly though, that is exactly what the UK Government are trying to do, with Grant Shapps being nothing more than a Tory cheerleader to this new Tory culture war.

“Their actions are designed to undermine unions, while doing nothing to resolve the disputes. It is unacceptable that Network Rail employees have had no pay rise for two years and are under threat of compulsory redundancies.

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“The Tories seem determined to out-Thatcher Thatcher in their approach to industrial relations. While they wage their culture war, Scotland and the rest of the UK will be brought to a standstill.

“The transport secretary must stop shouting from the sidelines and encourage negotiations to resolve these disputes before mass disruption affects us all.”

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The disruption will impact customers travelling to events including The Eagles at Murrayfield on Wednesday, as well as the Colourbox Festival at Bellahouston Park and Biffy Clyro concert at Ingliston on Saturday.

The strikes will impact on Network Rail and 13 train operators. The London Underground will also be hit on Tuesday.

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RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the union had no choice but to act after the train operators had still not made a pay offer when talks adjourned on Thursday.

“We have to fight this because we haven’t had any pay rises, we are faced with thousands of job cuts and they want to rip up our terms and conditions in a form of hire and re-hire that is internal to the railway,” he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

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He warned industrial action would continue if there was no settlement with other rail unions balloting their members on strike action.

“If there is not a settlement, we will continue our campaign,” he said. “I think there are going to be many more unions balloting across the country because people can’t take it any more.”

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Steve Montgomery, the chairman of the Rail Delivery Group, told the BBC: “We are now meeting them again tomorrow. We do want to offer them something but we have to have reform.

“There is room for compromise. We have got to work together, but we can resolve it. This is resolvable.”

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Mr Shapps said accused the RMT union of “punishing” millions of “innocent people” who will be affected by the strikes.

“Of course, it is a reality that if we can’t get these railways modernised, if we can’t get the kind of efficiency that will mean that they can work on behalf of the travelling public, then of course it is jeopardising the future of the railway itself,” he said.

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“I think it is a huge act of self-harm to go on strike at the moment. I don’t believe the workers are anywhere near as militant as their unions who are leading them up the garden path. They are gunning for this strike. It is completely unnecessary.”

Labour shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy said only the Government could now resolve the dispute and prevent the strikes going ahead.

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“The biggest problem that this country has is not militant workers, it’s a militant Government,” she said.

In a speech to the Labour Local Government Association conference in Warwick, Sir Keir Starmer said ministers wanted to see the country “grind to a halt” so they could “feed off the division”.

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“Instead of grown-up conversations to take the heat out of the situation, they are pouring petrol on the fire,” the Labour leader said.

“Instead of bringing people together in the national interest, they are stoking division in their political interest.”

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Mr Shapps dismissed the claim, telling the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme that many people would find the comments “pretty offensive”.

However, the calls for the Government to intervene were joined by former minister Jake Berry, the leader of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, who said ministers needed to avoid widespread disruption.

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ScotRail will be running just two trains an hour on four routes on the strike days – Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk High, Edinburgh to Bathgate, Glasgow to Hamilton/Larkhall, and Glasgow to Lanark. There will be one train an hour also running on the Edinburgh to Glasgow via Shotts route.

FirstBus said it would try to optimise the use of double decker buses on the busiest routes to ensure customer demand was met, but the company said it could not put on additional services due to driver shortages.

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Lothian Buses and Stagecoach have similarly reported driver shortages in recent months.

David Simpson, ScotRail service delivery director, said: “It is very unfortunate to see such widespread disruption across the whole of the Great Britain rail network and we know this will be frustrating for ScotRail customers.

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“Regrettably, this strike action by RMT members of Network Rail means that we will not be able to operate the vast majority of our services during the period of strike action.

“We’re reminding customers to expect significant disruption to services this week, including on the days between, and following, strike action which will impact customers travelling to events across the country.

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“On the five routes where we are able to operate a very limited service on strike days, we’re urging customers to only travel if they really need to, and to seek alternative means of transport where possible.”