Rail strike cripples services nationwide, causing major travel disruption
Image credit: PA Wire/PA Images/Stefan Rousseau
Millions of people are suffering disruption as the largest rail strike for a generation affects Britain’s train services.
Only a fifth of trains are running today (Tuesday) and half of rail lines are closed as around 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union employed by Network Rail and 13 train operators have walked out.
Services are generally restricted to main lines, but even those are only open between 7.30am and 6.30pm. Usually busy stations such as London Euston are nearly deserted except for the union picket lines.
London Underground services are also suspended on the vast majority of lines today due to a walkout by workers. Consequently, roads are busier than normal, with heavy traffic in city centres and on outer London sections of the M1, A4 and A40. People trying to travel around the capital are facing long queues for buses.
Uber has also hiked its prices amid a spike in demand for its hire car-services, with a three-mile journey from London Paddington to King’s Cross estimated to cost £27 at 8.45am.
Journey planning website National Rail Enquiries also stopped working for around half an hour earlier this morning with people desperate for updated information, but the cause of the problem was believed to be an outage at web infrastructure service Cloudflare, unrelated to the strike. Hundreds of websites - including Discord, Shopify and others - were also knocked offline.
Much of Britain will have no passenger trains for the entire day, including most of Scotland and Wales, the whole of Cornwall and Dorset, and places such as Chester, Hull, Lincoln and Worcester.
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. Additional strikes are planned for Thursday and Saturday.
At Birmingham New Street station, one of the UK's most important rail hubs, a few would-be passengers and commuters were trying to work out their travel plans, gazing at timetables on their phones and the departures board on the main concourse.
Elsewhere, dozens of people joined the first train to London out of Maidenhead station in Berkshire, a popular town for commuting, at 7.40am, but other platforms were empty, with only one train running every half hour to the capital on the new Elizabeth line route.
Boris Johnson told his ministerial team that the strike was causing “significant disruption and inconvenience up and down the country” and making it “more difficult for people to get to work, risking people’s appointments, making it more difficult for kids to sit exams – all sorts of unnecessary aggravations.”
Johnson set out why he believed the strikes were “so wrong and so unnecessary,” pointing to the levels of support offered to the industry during the pandemic and the “colossal” investment in rail infrastructure.
“We believe in our railways, we believe in our railway infrastructure as a vital part of levelling up across the country,” he said.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Breakfast there will be meetings of the Cobra emergency committee on the rail strikes this week.
He said he does not meet unions, describing calls for him to join them at the negotiating table as a “stunt”.
He went on: “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.”
Responding to Shapp's comments, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch (pictured above) accused the Transport Secretary of "spouting nonsense" with his proposed plans to allow agency staff to step in for striking workers.
Lynch criticised the proposed change in the law, which would allow flexible workers, including agency staff, to cover for those on strike. Shapps has claimed that the legislation change could be introduced within months.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Lynch said: “I don’t know how bringing in untrained, non-safety-critical, inexperienced workers into a dangerous environment like the railway – with high-speed trains, high-voltage distribution systems, rules and regulations that have the power of statute – how that will help anyone, whether they are a passenger or a worker or manager?”
Speaking outside London Euston Station, where he was joined by a number of striking workers, Lynch branded the plan to change the law as “draconian” and “a bit of an irrelevance,” as it would not be possible to find agency workers to replace staff in safety-critical roles.
He said: “They’re not going to be able to run 25,000 Volt electricity control centres; they’re not going to be able to signal high-speed trains; they’re not going to be able to maintain rolling stock, and they’re not going to be able to drive trains, so it’s a bit of an irrelevance really to the situation that we’re facing.”
Lynch warned that the dispute could continue for months, adding: “It is clear that the Tory Government, after slashing £4bn of funding from National Rail and Transport for London, has now actively prevented a settlement to this dispute.”
The Department for Transport disputed Mr Lynch’s clams, adding that it has cost taxpayers about £600 per household to keep the railway running during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some Labour MPs have joined picket lines in support of striking rail workers, although Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer reportedly ordered frontbenchers not to join picket lines outside stations.
The Conservatives have sought to use the row to claim Labour is on the side of the striking workers who have caused chaos for millions of commuters, so the Opposition leader is reluctant to give the Government more ammunition for that attack.
Shadow Treasury chief secretary Pat McFadden said he understands why the RMT union is pressing for a pay rise due to the rising cost of living, but that he wants to see a negotiated settlement.
McFadden told LBC News: “I would say to [my colleagues], in the end that’s not how this will be resolved. It will be resolved by a deal that gets the railways running again, and that’s where the political focus should be.”
Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite union, told the PA news agency: “The Labour Party was founded by the trade unions and we expect Labour MPs to defend workers, by words and by actions.”
A number of Labour MPs posted on social media from picket lines. Former shadow cabinet minister Richard Burgon said: “We can’t just keep accepting workers’ wages and conditions being driven down so that the profits of the rich are driven up.”
Scotland’s rail network is also suffering major disruption this week as workers at Network Rail join the strike action, leaving ScotRail able to run services on only five routes.
The rail operator will run two trains per hour on the Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk High line, the Edinburgh-Bathgate line, the Glasgow to Hamilton/Larkhall line and the Glasgow to Lanark line. One train an hour will run on the Edinburgh to Glasgow via Shotts service. Services on the five lines will only operate between 7.30am and 6.30pm on the dates affected.
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