British rail strike begins as disruption looms

The biggest strike on British Rail in 30 years took place in the early hours of Tuesday morning, expected to continue disrupting passengers all week, bringing much of the UK to a standstill.

Members of the RMT union have officially launched strike action, and they did not show up for the night shift scheduled for just after midnight. Train services started closing earlier than usual on Monday night before the shutdown.

Some 40,000 Network Rail employees and 13 train operating companies have been turned away from work over issues of wages, work practices and possible layoffs. More strikes are planned for Thursday and Saturday.

Workers on the London Underground also went on strike for a day on Tuesday, with buses becoming the only regular public transport in London.

Rail passengers across the country have been warned not to travel unless necessary, with only one in five mainline trains expected to run and many lines closed entirely.

Services running will start no earlier than 7.30am on Tuesday and close by 6.30pm, with commuter stops near the station likely to be best served.

Long-distance routes will face more severe disruptions, with the last trains between London and the cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh leaving before 4pm on Tuesday.

In the days between official strikes, especially in the morning, the disruption is likely to persist, as trains will not be able to run on schedule.

Business leaders have warned that the strike will hit an industry just recovering from the economic fallout from Covid-19 hardest. UKHospitality estimates that business revenue for leisure, theatre and tourism will drop by £1bn this week, based on the UK’s average June sales.

Muniya Barua, managing director of policy and strategy at capital business group London First, said: “The past two years have been challenging for businesses across all sectors, and this is not how London’s first unrestricted summer has begun in two years.”

RMT chief Mick Lynch says unions “have no choice but to protect our members” © Yui Mok/PA

The strike means more people may be staying home this week than at any time since the last pandemic lockdown, dealing another blow to downtown businesses.

But the coronavirus-driven adaptation to remote work means industrial action is unlikely to be as disruptive as some previous shutdowns.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps said rail was competing with virtual meeting tools such as Zoom, and warned that a wave of strikes could permanently stop passengers from commuting.

Passenger numbers on British Rail have returned to around 80% of their pre-pandemic levels this month, but rail industry executives say many commuters with longer journeys have stayed away.

Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said discussions with the RMT would continue with a view to avoiding a planned strike later this week. “We continue to speak to the RMT and urge them to work with us to find a solution that works for rail workers and taxpayers and avoids further disruption to our passengers,” he said.

“The RMT has no choice but to defend our members,” said Mick Lynch, head of the rail union. He accused the government of “shackled” railway industry pay packages and used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to impose a “traffic crunch”, including closing all ticket offices.

An industry executive said RMT bosses had rejected Network Rail’s offer of a 3 per cent pay rise, which could be increased in exchange for modernising work practices.

Shapps accused union leaders of “dragging the country back to the 1970s”.

The opposition Labour Party has accused Boris Johnson’s government of failing to interfere in negotiations between Network Rail and RMT.

Freight services will be prioritized this week, but the UK’s supply chain will still face new pressures. Maggie Simpson, head of Rail Freight Group, said with a 30 to 40 per cent drop in freight transported by train expected this week, the strike would “add additional risk to an already fragile supply chain”.

Supply from power stations and supermarkets will be prioritized, but Simpson said the flow of building materials – 40 per cent of which is used to transport my train – could be disrupted.

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