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 modernise 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 morning rush hour.
The 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.
Members of the RMT union have walked out in the dispute over pay, working practices and possible redundancies, including 40,000 employees at infrastructure owner Network Rail and staff at 13 train operating companies. More strikes are planned for Thursday and Saturday. London Underground staff also went on strike for one day on Tuesday.
The RMT leadership is 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 modernisation 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 travelling public . . . If we don’t do this, these great companies, this great industry, will face further financial pressure, it will go bust.”
There is uncertainty over when official negotiations on ending the strike will resume. Network Rail hopes to restart talks on Wednesday and its chief negotiator visited an RMT picket line on Tuesday morning, but the union said while it was open to talks, it had not formally received an invitation.
Mick Lynch, head of the rail union, has said the RMT “has no choice but to defend our members.” He blamed the government for “shackling” the rail industry’s pay offers and using the pandemic as an excuse to impose “transport austerity”, including closing all ticket offices.
Train drivers are members of a different union and are not on strike, while the industry has drafted managers and other staff on to the frontline to work on platforms and in signal boxes.
The railway will close down by 6.30pm, with the last trains 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.
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.
He said Network Rail had written to the RMT threatening “less than 2,000” redundancies, but that he hoped these could be voluntary.
Haines added that ministers have 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.
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 will cost its sector £540mn-£1bn as thousands of people are unable to travel across the country, harming bars, hotels, clubs, theatres 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 centres.
“I am grateful they kept the trains running in the pandemic, but we all came to work too. We pay a lot of money — £150 a week — to go up and down and we need a better service,” said John Brett, a building site manager who lives in Brighton and commuted daily to London through the pandemic.
But the Covid-driven adaptation to remote working has meant that the 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, but rail industry executives said many commuters with longer journeys have stayed away.
Freight services will be prioritised 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.
Supplies to power stations and supermarkets will be given priority, but Simpson said the flow of construction materials — 40 per cent of which is transported by train — could be disrupted.