Network Rail could nix thousands of maintenance jobs under restructuring plans to cut costs after the coronavirus pandemic.
The rail industry's biggest union, the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers' union (RMT) said they had been told that "drastic" cuts are being planned in the coming weeks.
According to the union, Network Rail is planning thousands of job losses by September this year. It estimated this could mean up to one in three of about 14,000 affected employees being laid off.
As a result, RMT said it was moving to a “national dispute” footing with government controlled Network Rail.
"RMT set for nationwide rail dispute in response to threat of thousands of rail worker redundancies by September and a fifty per cent cut in rail safety maintenance work," the union said.
The union said it is seeking urgent discussion with the government over the future of Network Rail as well as safety and maintenance standards on the railways.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash, said: "I will be seeking an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, but in the meantime RMT has no alternative to move to a national dispute footing to protect the livelihoods of our members and the lives of rail passengers and workers."
RMT, which has been locked in pay talks with the owner of the UK’s rail infrastructure, said the government has demanded savings in rail after underwriting services amid the COVID crisis, when public travel was banned. But, the UK government has said it is spending billions of pounds to make up for the lost fare income since the onset of the crisis.
Public transport and the travel sector as a whole have been hammered by the pandemic. Rail services are running at about 75% capacity, with passenger numbers just over 20% of pre-pandemic levels.
The union accused Network Rail of pushing an open-ended pay freeze and a reduction in conditions.
Cash added: "Under orders from the Government Network Rail is using the COVID-19 drop in passenger numbers and service levels to rush through the most radical restructuring of the railway infrastructure since privatisation.
"Rather than the post COVID-19 return to rail recovery which our economy and climate desperately needs this is a return to the disastrous days of Railtrack where cutting costs and corners led to a string of fatal accidents."
State-owned Network Rail replaced Railtrack — a private firm set up after UK rail privatisation in 1994 to run the infrastructure — which was disbanded in 2002.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have invested billions to support the rail industry and protect jobs. We will continue to do so.
“All parties must work together to deliver a more modern, efficient and effective workforce that ensures our railways are sustainable for the future.”
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