Rail strike hits Britain as Boris Johnson warns sector to modernize or go bust

Large parts of Britain have ground to a halt in the biggest strike to hit the country’s railways in 30 years, as Boris Johnson warned the sector needed to modernize or “go bust”.

Rail passengers across the country have been forced to stay at home after warnings to avoid all but essential travel, with only one-fifth of mainline trains expected to run and many lines closed entirely.

With only skeleton services running for commuters into London and other cities, there were no trains on large sections of the network during the morning rush hour.

The UK prime minister called “union barons to sit down with Network Rail and the train companies” to agree to reforms such as phasing out ticket offices.

Speaking to the FT, Mick Lynch, the leader of the RMT rail union organizing the strike, which involves 40,000 employees at the infrastructure owner Network Rail and staff at 13 train operating companies, said his priority was a settlement ensuring no compulsory redundancies.

But Network Rail wrote to the union late on Monday announcing plans to consult on 1,800 job losses and changes to working practices. The public body said it hoped the “vast majority” of job losses could be voluntary.

The RMT leadership is also pushing for pay rises of 7 to 8 per cent to compensate for inflation expected to hit 11 per cent this year. But Johnson called at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday for pay discipline to limit inflationary pressures, while arguing that rail modernization was essential.

“I say this to the country as a whole: we need to get ready to stay the course,” he added. “These improvements in the way we run our railways are in the interests of the traveling public. . . If we don’t do this, these great companies, this great industry, will face further financial pressure, it will go bust. “

Passengers getting off a train at Waterloo Station on Tuesday on the first day of national rail strikes

Passengers in Waterloo Station on the first day of national rail strikes on Tuesday, when London Underground staff also went on strike © Henry Nicholls / Reuters

The two sides seemed far from reaching agreement. Network Rail and train operators hope to restart talks on Wednesday, but the union said that while it was open to talks, it had not formally received an invitation.

More strikes are planned for Thursday and Saturday, while London Underground staff also went on strike for one day on Tuesday.

RMT Secretary General Mike Lynch
Mick Lynch, head of the RMT, said the union ‘had no choice’ but to proceed with the strike © Stefan Rousseau / PA

Andrew Haines, Network Rail’s chief executive, said he was “profoundly sorry” to passengers for the disruption but blamed the RMT for refusing to compromise including on “archaic” working practices.

Haines added that ministers had agreed Network Rail could go beyond the public sector pay cap and offer a rise of more than 3 per cent because of the huge scope for productivity gains within the industry.

Lynch said agreeing a pay package was only his third priority, after protecting jobs and terms and conditions. He added the rail companies viewed the negotiation “from the other end of the telescope”.

While the government has refused to directly negotiate with the RMT, in effect ministers control the industry’s finances.

Network Rail is state-owned, while the Department for Transport sets annual budgets for the services run by private train operating companies under coronavirus pandemic-era changes.

Business leaders warned that the strikes would hit the sectors hardest that were just recovering from the economic impact of Covid-19.

UKHospitality estimated the strike would cost its sector £ 540mn- £ 1bn as thousands of people would be unable to travel across the country, harming bars, hotels, clubs, theaters and restaurants.

“This week, we’re seeing people cancel events, but they’re not comfortable rebooking them because they’re not sure when the next strikes will come,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the hospitality industry group.

She said the strike action could “deliver a fatal financial blow to those businesses already struggling to survive”.

The strike means more people are likely to stay at home during the week than at any time since the last pandemic lockdown, delivering another hit to businesses in city centers.

But the Covid-driven adaptation to remote working has meant that industrial action is unlikely to be as disruptive as previous stoppages.

Passenger numbers on the UK’s railways have recovered to about 80 per cent of their pre-pandemic levels this month.

Freight services will be prioritized during the week but the UK’s supply chains will be put under renewed strain. Between 30 and 40 per cent less freight is expected to move by train across the week and the strikes will “add extra risk into already fragile supply chains,” said Maggie Simpson, head of the Rail Freight Group.

The rail skeleton service will close down by 6.30pm on Tuesday, with the last trains between London and cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh all departing before 4pm.

Train drivers are members of a different union and are not on strike, while the industry has drafted managers and other staff on the frontline to work on platforms and in signal boxes.

The disruption is likely to persist on the days between official strikes, particularly in the morning, because trains will be out of place for their timetabled runs.

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard and Daniel Thomas

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