Rail strikes: UK grinds to a halt with largest walkout in a generation

Just a fifth of services are running due to strike by staff demanding improved pay, jobs and conditions

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UK workers faced a return to working from home on Tuesday as the worst rail strikes in 30 years took place, crippling the rail network and leaving stations deserted.

Usually busy stations, such as London Euston, were empty except for picket lines by union members early on Tuesday. The start of severely limited services were delayed until 7.30am and only a fraction of the usual crowds of commuters were present.

A little more than two dozen people were present during what would normally be rush hour.

Only a fifth of trains are running, half of lines are closed, and the network will shut down at 6.30pm.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said commuters must "stay the course" in the face of the "significant disruption and inconvenience" caused by the strikes, hinting at a possible summer of misery for travel. Rail bosses have also warned the disruption could last months.

In his opening address to his Cabinet on Tuesday morning, Mr Johnson said: "We need, I’m afraid, everybody, and I say this to the country as a whole, we need to get ready to stay the course.

“These reforms, these improvements in the way we run our railways are in the interests of the travelling public, as they will help to cut costs for farepayers up and down the country."

Mr Johnson said the walkout of rail staff was making it difficult for people to travel to work, patients to make appointments and students to sit exams.

“All sorts of unnecessary aggravation this is going to cause,” he added. “And I want to emphasise to everybody why I think those strikes are so wrong, so wrong and so unnecessary.”

Mr Johnson pointed to the support his government had offered the rail industry during the Covid-19 pandemic, which included payments for employees placed on furlough.

He said his administration was making bigger investments in railways than any government in the past.

“The Integrated Rail Plan alone is worth £96 billion. What we’re doing is truly transformational, making a generational investment in railways.”

Much of the UK will have no passenger trains for the entire day, including most of Scotland and Wales, the whole of Cornwall and Dorset, in the south-west, and places such as Chester, Hull, Lincoln and Worcester.

The enquiries website for National Rail ― the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the railway network in the UK ― has stopped working.

Passengers attempting to use the service to find out what trains are running during the rail strike are being shown a message stating “500 Internal Server Error”.

Last-ditch talks failed to resolve the bitter dispute over pay, jobs and conditions, with all sides blaming each other for the lack of progress.

About 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union at Network Rail and 13 train operators have walked out.

Strikes are also planned for Thursday and Saturday, which will effectively create a standstill all week.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch on a picket line outside Euston station in London. PA

London Underground services are also suspended on the vast majority of lines today, due to a walkout by workers.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said ministers would change the law to minimise disruption from strikes by requiring a certain level of service to be run and enabling the use of agency workers.

Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said that the plan to use agency staff was not the solution. However, he added that the strike risked damaging the rail industry by encouraging people to work from home once more, soon after they were encouraged to return to their offices post-Covid.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said on Sky News that there are no agency workers available or capable of doing the jobs of highly skilled train staff.

He pledged to bring his workers out on strike again until the dispute is settled.

Mr Lynch called for co-ordinated campaigning “to redress the imbalances in society”.

“Working people are crying out for leadership and directions … the trade unions will make a difference,” he said.

RMT union pickets, who had been out since around 6am, were posted at all the main entrances to Birmingham New Street station, as well as outside the city’s signal box in nearby Navigation Street.

There was some visible support from the public, with a handful of drivers beeping horns. However, most people on their way to work in the city centre merely glanced at the picket lines before carrying on.

Impact of strikes

This week’s strikes will cause travel misery for millions.

Pupils and parents are being urged to make an alternative plan for getting to school for A-level and GCSE exams.

Motorists were warned to expect a surge in traffic as train passengers switch to road transport.

The AA motoring organisation predicted that the worst-affected roads are likely to be motorway arteries, as well as rural and suburban areas.

About half of Great Western Railway’s trains due to serve Castle Cary in Somerset, carrying revellers to the Glastonbury Festival between Wednesday and Friday, have been cancelled.

On the issue of public sector pay, Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are expected to argue discipline and restraint are vital to managing inflationary pressures downwards.

“We have a responsibility to tackle inflation and stop it becoming entrenched,” a Downing Street official said.

A passenger walks through a near-empty Birmingham New Street station. PA

“To do this, we must ensure that pay settlements are sensible and do not scramble to match inflation, and as a result drive up prices as the cost of goods and service increase to incorporate pay rises.”

The Bank of England last week forecast inflation was set to hit 11 per cent in the autumn as it increased interest rates to 1.25 per cent — the fifth successive rise.

Mr Johnson, who underwent a sinus operation under general anaesthetic yesterday, is expected to say before a Cabinet meeting that unions are “harming the very people they claim to be helping”.

He is set to accuse unions of “driving away commuters who ultimately support the jobs of rail workers”, while also hitting businesses across the country.

He will say: “Too high demands on pay will also make it incredibly difficult to bring to an end the current challenges facing families around the world with rising costs of living.

“Now is the time to come to a sensible compromise for the good of the British people and the rail workforce.

“It is right that we reward our hard-working public sector workers with a pay rise, but this needs to be proportionate and balanced.

The picket line outside Dover Priory Station, in Kent, south-east England, as members of the RMT union begin their nationwide strike. PA

“Sustained higher levels of inflation would have a far bigger impact on people’s pay packets in the long run, destroying savings and extending the difficulties we’re facing for longer.”

It comes after the chief secretary to the Treasury called for “public-sector pay discipline” and “collective society-wide responsibility”, to prevent a 1970s-style wage-price spiral.

What's been offered?

Mr Lynch said Network Rail had offered a 2 per cent pay rise with the possibility of a further 1 per cent later, dependent on efficiency savings.

He told BBC’s Newsnight that Network Rail had “escalated” the dispute during Monday’s talks,

“They have issued me a letter saying that there are going to be redundancies starting from July 1,” Mr Lynch said.

“So rather than trying to come to an agreement in this dispute, they’ve escalated it by giving us formal notice of redundancy amongst our Network Rail members.”

Travellers stand outside the closed entrance to the Gatwick Express train service at Victoria Station in London. Reuters

He gave a warning that the dispute could continue for months and said: “It is clear that the Tory government, after slashing £4 billion of funding from National Rail and Transport for London, has now actively prevented a settlement to this dispute.

“The rail companies have now proposed pay rates that are massively under the relevant rates of inflation, coming on top of the pay freezes of the past few years.

“At the behest of the government, companies are also seeking to implement thousands of job cuts and have failed to give any guarantee against compulsory redundancies.”

Passengers board a bus outside Victoria Station, in central London. Reuters

The Department for Transport disputed Mr Lynch’s clams. It said it has cost taxpayers about £600 per household to keep the railway running during the pandemic.

Agency workers to keep country running

Mr Shapps expanded on the plan to change the law so firms could bring in agency workers to minimise disruption from strikes.

He told Sky News: “What we will do in the future is we’ll make sure we’ve put in some additional protections in place for the travelling public, for example through minimal service levels.

“That would mean on a day like today a certain level of service would still have to be run and through changes to allow for transferable workers, that’s a much quicker change we could take.

“For future strikes, both in this current but also for other strikes, we are going to ensure that the law is firmly on the passengers' side. One of the ways is through transferable skills, or agency workers, as you call it.

Crowds of passengers get off a train at Waterloo Station in central London. Reuters

“And there are a number of other technical changes we can make to union laws to make sure the public is always protected.”

He said he does not meet with unions, as he described calls for him to join them round the negotiating table as a “stunt”.

Mr Shapps told BBC Breakfast: “I don’t typically meet with them because it’s a red herring. If I thought there was a one in a million chance it would make a slightest bit of difference, of course I would do so at the drop of the hat.

“The reality is they’re using it as a camouflage for the fact they’ve walked out of the talks that they should be in with their employers.

“I don’t meet with them because that’s the job of the employers — and the employers do meet with them. This is a stunt by the trade unions.

“What they need to do is come back into the negotiation today with Network Rail, with the train operating companies, and carry on negotiations and get this thing fixed.

“That’s what needs to happen and the rest of it, I’m afraid, is a distraction, which you’re falling for.”

Updated: June 21, 2022, 1:29 PM
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