Britain’s cities look like they are in lockdown today after striking rail workers were accused of ‘exploiting’ the chance to walk out on the first day back at work for millions after the Christmas break in another hammer blow to the economy and businesses.
Mick Lynch’s RMT Union will shut down the railways this week as members stage two 48-hour walkouts starting today and again on Friday with the streets of central London deserted during rush hour.
Congestion is also down on pre-pandemic levels across the UK after around half of Britain’s railway lines are closed on Tuesday and only a fifth of services are running as thousands of workers at Network Rail and train downed tools.
Drivers in the Aslef union will strike on Thursday amid claims ministers are seriously considering offering sweeteners to rail workers including more days off, pension benefits and bonuses to end months of strikes.
Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce, said that the strikes are a disaster for businesses, who need a good start to 2023 on what will be a very tough year economically.
Mr Burge said owners were ‘blaming both’ the government and unions for the strikes. He accused the unions of ‘exploiting the situation’ after being protected during two years of lockdowns.
He said: ‘The unions had a frankly light pandemic. They were manning empty trains and empty stations, They were all on furlough – nobody lost their jobs. They were not ambulance workers, doctors or nurses and they are now basically exploiting the situation’.
Today was meant to be the first day back in the office for millions, but the City of London is deserted because people couldn’t get there in scenes repeated across the country
Mick Lynch on a very thin picket line at Euston Station this morning as the strikes hit the country today and for the rest of the week
Congestion in London was half what it would normally be today as people stayed at home due to strikes with traffic below levels on in 2021 and 2019
Picket lines have been mounted outside railway stations across the country in a repeat of what became a familiar sight last year – but they were sparser this morning amid claims support for Mick Lynch is draining away.
The Federation of Small Businesses said: ‘Small businesses are the collateral damage of strikes. They are losing money because of something that has nothing to do with them’.
Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, said: ‘Hospitality needs all sides to come to the negotiating table with goodwill and compromise to resolve the dispute and draw a line under strikes which are so devastating for our workers, customers and businesses – £2.5bn losses and counting’.
Meanwhile over 100 road traffic officers and control room operators working for National Highways across England are also holding a 48-hour strike on Tuesday.
The RMT trade union must get off the picket line and ’round the negotiating table’, the Transport Secretary has said this morning.
As fresh rail strikes begin, Mark Harper told Times Radio: ‘There is a very fair pay offer on the table which has been accepted by two of the trade unions on Network Rail.
‘The RMT recommended that their members didn’t accept it, but actually a third of their members still voted in favour of it.
‘I think it is time that the RMT got off the picket line and round the negotiating table to try and hammer out a deal with the train operating companies and Network Rail.
‘It is a fair and reasonable offer on the table and … this is a very difficult week for those that depend on the train to get to work, to carry out important appointments, and for businesses who depend on those commuters.’
Mr Harper later added he had had ‘perfectly constructive discussions’ with all rail union leaders when asked if he had a good relationship with the RMT’s Mick Lynch.
There was then an awkward moment when they were both briefly on TV together, where Mr Lynch accused Mr Harper of lying about scuppering negotiations.
Speaking from a picket line, Mr Lynch told Sky News: ‘I would go and meet him (Transport Secretary Mark Harper) now if he wants, or he can come here and meet me, and we can hammer some things out.
‘What we keep hearing is the same stuff from the Government across the sectors that they want to facilitate an agreement, but they don’t actually do anything.
‘I met the rail minister on December 15 along with the companies. We have heard nothing tangible since then, we have heard a few warm words and Mark Harper conducts himself in a pleasant way, in a good way, and that is fine.
‘What we need to hear now from the Government is exactly what it is they are going to propose to us.’
The Bank of England and the Royal Exchange close to Bank station this morning
The empty streets of Central London as RMT members walked out yet again
Traffic was also down in other major cities across the UK
London Bridge Station closed to the public as members of the RMT union take part in strikes
Traffic at the Blackwall tunnel this morning as those not working from home make their way in
January strikes laid out in full across the calendar pages this month from various unions
Mr Lynch also suggested ministers were ‘undermining efforts to get a settlement’ and had ‘torpedoed’ an agreement in December.
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, has said a deal to stop rail strikes is in ‘touching distance’.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Some members are coming back to work, and we are seeing increasing numbers come back to work, but that’s not the way to resolve the problem or the dispute.
‘The way to resolve that dispute is through an agreement and what we’re saying to the RMT is that it’s very clear from the referendum that they held, they did it very quickly, it was only open for a few days, that actually that was rushed, and it didn’t allow and give time for people to ask genuine questions there are associated with the reform elements of this deal.
‘So, what we’re saying to the RMT is that we know which areas had been misunderstood by some of our staff, their members, and we want to make sure that we can work with the RMT now to make clarifications where there’s been misunderstanding and put the deal out again.
‘We only need 2,000 people who voted no last time to change their vote and the deal will pass. So, we think that’s within touching distance.’
The disruption to travel – which is damaging the economy – was hailed by some commuters who welcomed the opportunity to stay in bed and work from home.
One cheered: ‘So glad it’s train strikes and I get to WFH tomorrow, no way am I ready for my 6am alarm,’
Another celebrated: ‘WFH and it’s a strike day so technically it’s a day to do nothing’.
It comes a day after it was warned that a generation of passengers will be put off the railways forever by the persistent train strikes.
The journeys of millions of people will be hit this week by the militant rail unions and their plot to create the worst disruption in three decades.
PCS Union Workington picket line this morning as they carry out industrial action for more pay
There were wide celebrations from commuters now allowed to work from home by bosses
Mr Lynch blamed ministers for blocking a possible agreement between employers and his trade union, which has turned down a pay rise offer of 9 per cent over two years
Mick Lynch has insisted he does not want disruption on the railways, ahead of two 48-hour walkouts by his members that will mean only one in five trains run.
No end to the strikes claims union boss
A union chief has insisted walkouts will continue despite Rishi Sunak’s plan to rush through new anti-strike laws this year.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA which represents senior civil servants, also predicted there will soon be co-ordinated industrial action across the public sector.
Mr Penman told Times Radio: ‘The reality of this is these disputes are about pay.
‘And unless you do deal with that, unless the Government tries to solve that, they might be able to have some minor restrictions around the impact of some of these strikes, but the strikes are going to continue.’
The advice is to only travel if absolutely necessary, allow extra time and check when first and last trains will depart.
There may also be disruption to services on Sunday as the striking workers return to their duties.
On RMT strike days, around half of the network will shut down, with only about 20% of normal services running.
Trains that do run will start later and finish much earlier than usual – with services typically running between 7.30am and 6.30pm on the day of the strike.
The train drivers’ strike on Thursday will affect 15 operators and will result in even fewer services running, with some companies operating ‘very significantly reduced’ timetables.
Daniel Mann, director of industry operations at the Rail Delivery Group, said: ‘No-one wants to see these strikes go ahead, and we can only apologise to passengers and to the many businesses who will be hit by this unnecessary and damaging disruption.
‘We would advise passengers to only travel if it is absolutely necessary during this period, allow extra time and check when their first and last train will depart. Passengers with tickets for between 3-7 January can use their ticket the day before the ticket date, or up to and including Tuesday 10 January.
A generation of passengers will be put off the railways forever by persistent train strike, unions have been warned, as they prepare for another five-day walkout
Who is on strike today?
Avanti West Coast
Govia Thameslink (plus Gatwick Express)
West Midlands Trains (plus London Northwestern Railway)
Great Western Railway
Network Rail has only enough to allow 20pc of normal capacity to run
‘This dispute will only be resolved by agreeing the long overdue reforms to working arrangements needed to put the industry on a sustainable footing, rather than unions condemning their members to losing more pay in the new year.’
Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, said there ‘is an unprecedented level of ministerial interference’ preventing a settlement to the dispute.
He said: ‘The Government is blocking the union’s attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the rail employers.
‘We have worked with the rail industry to reach successful negotiated settlements ever since privatisation in 1993, and we have achieved deals across the network in 2021 and 2022 where the Department for Transport has no involvement.
‘Yet in this dispute, there is an unprecedented level of ministerial interference, which is hamstringing rail employers from being able to negotiate a package of measures with us, so we can settle this dispute.
‘We will continue our industrial action campaign while we work towards a negotiated resolution.’
Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan told the PA news agency that the union is ‘in it for the long haul’, adding: ‘We don’t want to go on strike but the companies have pushed us into this place.
‘They have not offered our members a penny, and these are people who have not had an increase since April 2019.
‘That means they expect train drivers at these companies to take a real-terms pay cut – to work just as hard for considerably less – when inflation is running at north of 14%.
‘The train companies say their hands have been tied by the Government. While the Government, which does not employ us, says it’s up to the companies to negotiate with us.
‘We are always happy to negotiate – we never refuse to sit down at the table and talk, but these companies have offered us nothing, and that is unacceptable.’
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: ‘Passengers have rightly had enough of rail strikes and want the disruption to end.
‘The Government has demonstrated it is being reasonable and stands ready to facilitate a resolution to rail disputes. It’s time the unions came to the table and played their part as well.
‘Inflation-matching pay increases for all public sector workers would cost everyone more in the long term – worsening debt, fuelling inflation, and costing every household an extra £1,000.
‘Unions should step back from this strike action so we can start 2023 by ending this damaging dispute.’