Large parts of Britain have ground to a halt after the biggest strike to hit the country’s railways in 30 years began in the early hours of Tuesday with disruption to passengers expected to last all week.
Members of the RMT union officially launched the industrial action by not turning up for night shifts that had been scheduled to start just after midnight. Train services had begun winding down earlier than usual on Monday night before the stoppage.
Some 40,000 Network Rail staff as well as workers at 13 train operating companies are refusing to work in a dispute over pay, working practices and possible redundancies. More strikes are planned for Thursday and Saturday.
London Underground staff also went on strike for one day on Tuesday, leaving buses as the only regular form of public transport operating in the capital.
Rail passengers across the country have been warned not to travel unless necessary, with only one-fifth of mainline trains expected to run and many lines closed entirely.
Services that do run will start no earlier than 7.30am on Tuesday and close by 6.30pm, with commuter-heavy stations near depots likely to be the best served.
Longer-distance routes will face more significant disruption, with the last trains on Tuesday between London and cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh all departing before 4pm.
The disruption is likely to persist on the days between the official strikes, particularly in the morning, because trains will be out of place for their timetabled runs.
Business leaders warned that the strikes would hit the sectors hardest that were just recovering from the economic impact of Covid-19. UKHospitality estimates that more than £1bn will be wiped off revenues of business in the leisure, theatre and tourism industry this week, based on the average sales in June across the UK.
Muniya Barua, managing director of policy and strategy at London First, the capital’s business group, said: “The last two years have been challenging for businesses in all sectors, and this is not the way to start London’s first restriction-free summer in two years.”
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 blow to businesses in city centres.
But the Covid-driven adaptation to remote working means the industrial action is unlikely to be as disruptive as some previous stoppages.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, has said the railway is competing with virtual meeting tools such as Zoom — and warned that passengers could be deterred from commuting permanently by a wave of strikes.
Passenger numbers on the UK’s railways have recovered to around 80 per cent of their pre-pandemic levels this month, but rail industry executives say many commuters with longer journeys have stayed away.
Andrew Haines, Network Rail’s chief executive, said discussions with the RMT would continue, in the hope of averting the strikes planned later in the week. “We continue to talk to the RMT and urge them to work with us to find a solution that works for rail workers and taxpayers, and avoids causing further disruption for our passengers,” he said.
“The RMT has no choice but to defend our members,” said Mick Lynch, head of the rail union. He blamed the government for “shackling” the rail industry’s pay offers and using Covid as an excuse to impose “transport austerity”, including closing all ticket offices.
RMT bosses rejected a Network Rail offer of a 3 per cent pay rise, with scope for this to move a little higher in exchange for modernising working practices, one industry executive said.
Shapps accused union leaders of “dragging the country back to the 70s.”
The opposition Labour party blamed Boris Johnson’s government for failing to intervene in the talks between Network Rail and the RMT.
Freight services will be prioritised during the week but the UK’s supply chains will still be put under fresh 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.
Supplies to power stations and supermarkets will be given priority, but Simpson said the flow of construction materials — 40 per cent of which moves my train — could be disrupted.