UK rail strikes to go ahead starting Tuesday after talks fail

Only about 20 per cent of services will survive an initial three days of stoppages, with Scotland and Wales hit hardest. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LONDON (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Britain’s biggest strike action on the railway network in over 30 years will go ahead, after talks over pay broke down, the Rail Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union said on Saturday (June 18). 

RMT general-secretary Mick Lynch said there had been discussions in recent weeks with rail infrastructure body Network Rail, train companies and London Underground. But he added that “no viable settlements” were found. 

The failure of talks means more than 50,000 workers will take part in a three-day national strike on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday this week. London Underground workers will also stage a 24-hour walk-out on Tuesday. 

The action coincides with major events including the Glastonbury music festival, as well as national exams for teenagers. 

Major disruption is predicted but the RMT defended the industrial action and blamed the Conservative government for cutting billions of pounds in funding from the transport network. 

Jobs had been lost across the sector, while wages for staff that remain were failing to keep pace with soaring inflation, which is at a 40-year high, it argued. 

“In the face of this massive attack on our people the RMT cannot be passive,” said Mr Lynch. 

“So... we are confirming that the strike action scheduled to take place on 21st, 23rd and 25th June will go ahead.” 

The Rail Delivery Group, an industry body for passenger and freight operators, predicted that “millions of people” would be affected. It promised to try to keep as many services running as possible but warned that “significant disruption will be inevitable and some parts of the network will not have a service”. 

The strikes, which the RMT said are the biggest since 1989, will likely compound travel chaos, after airlines were forced to cut flights due to staff shortages, causing delays and frustration. 

The Department for Transport said the RMT’s decision was “hugely disappointing and premature” and warned that jobs could be at risk if passengers turn away from rail. 

“We urge the RMT to reconsider so we can find a solution that delivers for workers, passengers and taxpayers alike,” a spokesman said. 

As disruptive as the rail walkouts are likely to be, they are symptomatic of more fundamental challenges facing the industry, as the rise of working from home weighs on demand long after the lifting of pandemic lockdowns. 

The shift in travel habits coincides with a wholesale makeover of the railway, as the government seeks to simplify fares while scrapping Network Rail and a long-standing franchise system to reduce the network’s fragmentation.

With the national strike looming, train operators have issued warnings against making unnecessary journeys. PHOTO: REUTERS

Figures released by the Office of Road and Rail on Thursday revealed the extent of rail’s retreat, with total journeys at only 62 per cent of the pre-pandemic tally in the quarter through March.

Most tellingly, season tickets – the cheapest travel option for daily peak-time commuters – accounted for just 17 per cent of rail journeys over 12 months, less than half the former level.

“The industry is in crisis,” said Mr Tony Lodge, author of Changing Track, a report published last month by the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank. 

Mr Lodge argued that the sector is facing its third major reset since World War II, after the swingeing cuts of the 1960s, implemented in response to the rise of cars and trucks, and privatisation in the 1990s, which lifted investment and saw passenger numbers revive as roads grew more congested.

“We’re at a crossroads, and there needs to be some radical thinking to respond to evolving passenger demands,” he said. 

While a headache for the government, the slump in ridership is less of an issue for Britain’s train operating companies.

While the risk and reward-based franchising system was already set to be scrapped even before Covid-19 hit, the pandemic prompted a switch to emergency measures that will be replaced by a new service contract model.

Firms will receive payments to run trains rather than have to rely partly on less predictable income from passenger fares. The certainty offered by the change has brought a spate of takeover bids for players in public transport.

FirstGroup executive chairman David Martin, a rail veteran, said in an interview that firms understand they must cut their cloth to suit new realities. While future requirements are unclear, they could include steps to stimulate demand, as well as deliver on plans to eliminate diesel trains.

In response to the walkouts, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said staff may protest themselves out of a job. Commuters who three years ago had little choice but to take the train now have other options, like Zoom meetings.

“Wave them goodbye, and it will endanger the jobs of thousands of rail workers,” he said.

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