UK rail strike begins as days of disruption loom
Large parts of Britain have ground to a halt in the biggest strike to hit the country’s railways in 30 years, as Boris Johnson calls for pay restraint to rein in mounting inflation.
Rail passengers across the country were forced to stay at home after warnings to avoid all but essential travel, with only one-fifth of mainline trains expected to run and many lines closed entirely.
With only skeleton services running for commuters into London and other cities, there were no trains on large sections of the network during morning rush hour.
The prime minister says the strikes are “driving away commuters who ultimately support the jobs of rail workers”.
Members of the RMT Union have walked out in a dispute over pay, working practices and possible redundancies, including 40,000 staff at infrastructure owner Network Rail and staff at 13 train operating companies. More strikes are planned for Thursday and Saturday. London Underground staff also went on strike for one day on Tuesday.
The RMT leadership is pushing for pay rises of around 7 to 8 per cent, but Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak both plan to say at a cabinet meeting today that pay discipline and restraint are vital to manage inflationary pressures downwards.
“It is right that we reward our hard-working public sector workers with a pay rise, but this needs to be proportionate and balanced,” Johnson is due to say. “Sustained higher levels of inflation would have a far bigger impact on people’s pay packets in the long run.”
Train drivers are members of a different union and are not on strike, while the industry has drafted managers and other staff on to the frontline to work on platforms and in signal boxes.
The railway will close down by 6.30pm, with the last trains between London and cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh all departing before 4pm.
The disruption is likely to persist on the days between the official strikes, particularly in the morning, because trains will be out of place for their timetabled runs.
Andrew Haines, Network Rail’s chief executive, said he was “profoundly sorry” to passengers for the disruption, but blamed the RMT for refusing to compromise, including on “archaic” working practices.
He said ministers have agreed Network Rail could go beyond the public sector pay cap and offer a rise of more than 3 per cent because of the huge scope for productivity gains within the industry.
Haines said Network Rail has written to the RMT threatening “less than 2,000” redundancies, but that he hoped these could be voluntary.
“The RMT has no choice but to defend our members,” said Mick Lynch, head of the rail union. He blamed the government for “shackling” the rail industry’s pay offers and using Covid as an excuse to impose “transport austerity”, including closing all ticket offices.
Business leaders warned that the strikes would hit the sectors hardest that were just recovering from the economic impact of Covid-19.
UKHospitality estimates the strike will cost its sector £540mn-£1bn as thousands of people are unable to travel across the country, hitting bars, hotels, clubs, theatres, and restaurants.
“This week, we’re seeing people cancel events, but they’re not comfortable rebooking them because they’re not sure when the next strikes will come,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the hospitality industry group.
She said the strike action “couldn’t come at a worse time” for the hospitality industry and warned that it could “deliver a fatal financial blow to those businesses already struggling to survive”.
The strike means more people are likely to stay at home during the week than at any time since the last pandemic lockdown, delivering another blow to businesses in city centres.
“I am grateful they kept the trains running in the pandemic, but we all came to work too. We pay a lot of money — £150 a week — to go up and down and we need a better service,” said John Brett, a building site manager who lives in Brighton and commuted daily to London through to pandemic.
But the Covid-driven adaptation to remote working means the industrial action is unlikely to be as disruptive as some previous stoppages.
Passenger numbers on the UK’s railways have recovered to around 80 per cent of their pre-pandemic levels this month, but rail industry executives say many commuters with longer journeys have stayed away.
Freight services will be prioritised during the week but the UK’s supply chains will still be put under fresh strain. Between 30 and 40 per cent less freight is expected to move by train across the week, and the strikes will “add extra risk into already fragile supply chains,” said Maggie Simpson, head of the Rail Freight Group.
Supplies to power stations and supermarkets will be given priority, but Simpson said the flow of construction materials — 40 per cent of which moves my train — could be disrupted.