Christmas may be over, but the so-called advent calendar of strike disruption is continuing into January as Britain enters its worst week of rail walkouts for 30 years.

Four in five trains have been cancelled today, affecting roughly 16 million journeys, as 40,000 members of the RMT union kickstart the first of two 48-hour strikes this week. Another is planned for Friday while members of drivers’ union, Aslef, will also walk out on Thursday.

But could we be close to a resolution?

We are hearing conflicting accounts. 

Network Rail’s boss, Tim Shoveller, struck an optimistic note this morning, claiming a deal was “within touching distance.” Yet this is not down to any new deal. Rather, the company, which put its “best and final offer” on the table two weeks ago – of a 5% pay rise for last year and a 4% pay rise in 2023 – is still hoping the RMT will reconsider. 

Shoveller said this offer has already been accepted by another rail union, the TSSA, and RMT members were close to accepting it in December. “We only need 2,000 people who voted no last time to change their vote and the deal will pass,” he said. The Network Rail boss insists that the December referendum held by the RMT was “rushed” and didn’t give members a chance to properly consider the offer. 

However, speaking from a picket line at Euston station today, Mick Lynch dispelled claims of an imminent deal. The RMT boss insisted Network Rail’s most recent offer “wasn’t tangible,” and threatened further action up until the summer.

Rail strikes tend to elicit less public sympathy than, say, NHS nurses taking to the picket line because rail workers are already fairly well paid. According to the ONS, the average salary of rail workers in 2022 was £45,919, and for drivers, it was £58,862. That said, the industrial dispute is not just about pay, but also about proposed changes to working practices, which some fear will threaten the future of their jobs. 

There are unconfirmed reports emerging that ministers are seriously considering handing more perks to rail workers, such as enhanced holiday entitlement and pension benefits, in order to break the deadlock. 

Talks between rail unions and employers are also due to resume next week. Clearly, something has got to give, not least because of the toll rail chaos is taking on the already struggling hospitality industry. 

The cancellation of rail services over the festive period is estimated to have cost the industry £1.5bn in lost sales and this week, restaurants, pubs and bars are bracing themselves for another £200m hit to their takings. 

“The sector has struggled to recover from Covid and these protracted rail strikes since May have made that bounceback much tougher,” said Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, lamenting the fact that the latest bout of industrial action would make city centres “ghost towns for yet another week.”

“Enough is enough,” she added. “This needs to end now.” Quite right too.