On 20 July 2023, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act received Royal Assent. The legislation was introduced in January 2023 to the House of Commons amid an ongoing period of industrial strife between the rail unions and rail industry employers. The Act makes provision for the Secretary of State for Business and Trade to make “minimum service regulations” which set required minimum service levels across a range of sectors, including transport, during strikes. The exact level of service that will be required in the rail sector during periods of industrial action is not detailed in the Act itself; this will be specified in time by the Department for Transport through regulations.
We have not sought to reach a view in this inquiry on the principle of the introduction of minimum service levels, but to provide advice about what would be needed in order to make this policy workable and effective for the rail industry. Repeatedly we heard from stakeholders that they were looking to the Government to provide more detail about its intentions. In the absence of that detail, they have found it understandably difficult to give reasoned views on the practicality of the proposals. We have, however, heard about a wide range of factors that will need to be taken into account, and on this basis, we believe there are key criteria that a minimum service level for rail services will need to fulfil:
a) Limited services do already run on days when strike action takes place; up to an average of around 40 per cent of services in some instances. A minimum service level provided on strike days should therefore be at least as good as that typically provided on previous strike days.
b) Safety on the network for staff and the travelling public must be the primary consideration.
c) The ability of train companies to run services on strike days is dependent on the specific circumstances of the strike action—in particular, which staff, in which roles, are participating in industrial action—and operators’ ability to make contingency arrangements. The minimum service level must be flexible enough to be applied to different patterns of industrial action affecting different employers.
d) Under a minimum service level there will likely be groups of specialised staff who are required to work more than others because of their job role. The greater responsibilities placed on those who must work on strike days to provide a minimum service must be reflected in pay and conditions. Resilience in staffing must be improved so that there are trained alternatives able to cover for specialised staff who may want to exercise their right to strike.
e) There is considerable nuance in local travel patterns; a localised approach to specifying a minimum service level will be required in order to provide for passengers who use rail services to get to school, work or hospital appointments. Regulations must be specified in a way which enables knowledge about travel patterns in particular regions and localities, including access to employment, education, and essential services, to be taken into account.
f) The service available on recent strike days has varied considerably across the country, with some areas having little or no service. During disruption, passengers have turned to alternative modes of travel to complete journeys, but there is also variation in the availability of alternative options. Rail services—or credible alternatives—should be available to passengers in all areas of the country normally served by the network.
g) Passengers with access needs must receive the same support as they are entitled to on regular travel days.
h) Rail disruption impacts the wider economy, preventing travel to social plans and having a disproportionate impact on consumer confidence to travel on strike days. A minimum service level for rail should protect industries, such as the night-time economy, that cannot adopt flexible and remote working patterns on strike days.
i) Although the freight sector is excluded from the Act, it is heavily affected by the legislation, not least because it has little recourse to alternative modes of transportation when strikes impact the wider rail network. When strikes span multiple days in particular, the impact on freight can be hard to mitigate, which can have a longer-term impact on consumer confidence in the sector. There must be clarity about the access that freight services can expect to have to the network, and Government and the freight industry must collaborate on determining what routes should be prioritised.
Once the Department has determined which model of minimum service level it plans to implement through regulations, it must consult on it. It must also consider ways in which a set minimum service level for rail could be piloted.
Looking to the future, we recommend the Department use three criteria for assessing the success of a minimum service level for rail:
a) We heard that there was a risk that the introduction of minimum service regulations in the rail industry could lead to the proliferation of action short of striking or novel industrial action. It is essential that when a minimum service level for rail is implemented, industrial disputes are neither prolonged nor increased, and novel industrial action does not proliferate.
b) We heard that the key passenger requirement from the railways is reliability. Minimum service regulations must result in greater passenger satisfaction on strike days than at present, with access to clearly communicated information, and greater certainty, further in advance than at present about travel on strike days.
c) Longer term, a minimum service level can only be successful if it results in more effective cooperation and better working relationships between rail unions, the industry and government.
We, along with stakeholders, await with interest further information about how minimum service levels will be implemented within the rail industry.