Rail strikes: UK passengers face further delays on Thursday

Talks aimed at resolving a bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions resume

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Commuters are braced for further travel disruption on Thursday when the second official day of Britain’s biggest nationwide rail strike in more than 30 years gets under way.

About 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union at Network Rail — the organisation that maintains the system — and 13 train operators are involved in three days of strike action, spread across five days.

There was continued disruption for travellers on Wednesday as a knock-on effect of Tuesday's walkout. The joint action caused travel chaos across Britain, with journeys taking longer and roads rammed with traffic as people switched to cars or buses to get to work.

Anthony Smith, the chief executive of Transport Focus, the independent watchdog for transport users , described it as a "messy day” for travellers.

Thousands of ticket-holders heading to Glastonbury, which opened its gates on Wednesday, faced anxiety in the run-up to the festival over the disruption, with some trains to Castle Cary, which serves the festival via shuttle bus, cancelled just days before.

Talks aimed at resolving a bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions resumed on Wednesday, after 11th-hour negotiations to avert the strike failed earlier this week.

Transport for London (TfL) staged a single strike day of its Underground workers on Tuesday to coincide with the first day of RMT’s walkout.

The network advised people not to travel on the Tube until mid-morning on Wednesday owing to severe delays on several lines. By mid-afternoon the majority of the London Underground network was running as normal.

Thursday’s strike is expected to affect rail services on Friday morning, while a third day of action is planned for Saturday.

Services started later than normal on Wednesday as trains were delayed leaving depots due to striking signallers and control room staff with Network Rail — the owner and infrastructure manager of most of Britain's railway network.

Sixty per cent of trains were expected to run across the entire day, with some operators winding down services slightly earlier than usual before Thursday’s walkout.

The joint action disrupted travel across Britain, with journeys taking longer and roads rammed with traffic as many switched to cars or buses.

At Wednesday’s session of Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson clashed with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer over their parties’ differing stances on the rail strikes.

The prime minister said the opposition party had taken £10 million ($12.2m) in funding from the RMT and said Labour was “backing the strikers” while government ministers “back the strivers”.

Sir Keir said Mr Johnson and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps “haven’t attended a single meeting, held a conversation or lifted a finger to stop these strikes”.

He accused the Conservative prime minister of blaming others for the disruptive action and urged him to “get round the table and get the trains running”.

Mr Johnson said his government was “making sure that we do everything we can to prevent these strikes”.

“He knows it is up to the railway companies to negotiate, that is their job,” Mr Johnson said of his opponent.

“We’ve spent £16 billion looking after the railways throughout the pandemic — that’s cost every household £600.

“We know why he won’t condemn the strikes. We know why even now he hasn’t got the gumption to call out his MPs for going out to support the pickets.

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

“The reason his authority is on the line in this matter is that they take £10 million … that’s the fee the learned gentleman opposite is receiving for the case he is failing to make.”

The RMT will meet National Rail and the train companies in another attempt to break the deadlock.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the turnout at picket lines on Tuesday was “fantastic” and exceeded expectations in the union’s campaign for job security, better conditions and a pay rise.

“Our members will continue the campaign and have shown outstanding unity in the pursuit of a settlement to this dispute,” he said.

“RMT members are leading the way for all workers in this country who are sick and tired of having their pay and conditions slashed by a mixture of big business profits and government policy.

“Now is the time to stand up and fight for every single railway worker in this dispute that we will win.”

The union has been asked by Network Rail to attend formal talks next month on introducing “modern working practices”.

Network Rail official Tim Shoveller said the changes would mean “dumping outdated working practices and introducing new technology”.

“We expect this will reduce roles by around 1,800, the vast majority of which will be lost through voluntary severance and natural wastage,” he said.

A Department for Transport representative said: “These are desperately needed reforms that modernise the railway and put it on a sustainable footing for passengers and taxpayers.

Passengers bound for the Glastonbury Festival wait at Paddington station as train services continue to be disrupted. AP Photo

“Unions have shut down big parts of the rail network, hitting local businesses and unfairly cutting people off from hospitals, schools and work.

“However, early data shows that unlike in the past, many people now have the opportunity to work from home, so we haven’t even a rush to the roads, as traffic has instead gone online, which means the unions aren’t having the overall impact they might have hoped.”

The UK's Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said rising inflation showed the need for pay restraint in the public sector and on the railways.

He told Sky News there was a risk of a “vicious cycle” of rising wages pushing inflation even higher if union demands were met.

The government is taking a “firm line” on the walkout, he said.

Commuters are being forced to make major changes to their schedules this week, with many people opting to work from home while others use buses or taxis.

Hundreds of bus drivers in Merseyside, north-west England, announced strike action on Wednesday over a pay dispute.

Members of the Unite union employed by Stagecoach in Merseyside will walk out on June 30 and again on July 4.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham said: “Stagecoach is a highly profitable company — it can easily afford to pay its workers a decent wage but it is choosing not to.

“Unite will always challenge employers who make excessive profits by exploiting and underpaying workers. Our members will receive Unite’s complete support until this dispute is resolved.”

Updated: June 22, 2022, 3:44 PM