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

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

Rail passengers across the country have been forced to stay at home after warnings to avoid all but essential journeys, with only a fifth of main lines expected to be closed and many lines completely closed.

As there were only regular commuter trains to London and other cities, there were no trains on large parts of the network during the morning rush hour.

The British Prime Minister called for “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, involving 40,000 infrastructure owner Network Rail employees and staff from 13 train operators, said his priority was a settlement that would ensure no forced get laid off.

Rail strikes: disruption map

A Network Rail executive said the two sides got close to a last-minute deal late Monday, but added that the RMT didn’t go far enough in modernizing maintenance practices in return for higher pay.

Network Rail then wrote to the RMT after talks failed, announcing plans to consult on 1,800 job cuts and changes in working practices. The government body said it hoped the “vast majority” of the job cuts would be voluntary, but the RMT has said the two sides are far from a deal.

The RMT leadership is pushing for wage increases of 7 to 8 percent to offset inflation expected to reach 11 percent this year. But Johnson at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday called for wage discipline to curb inflationary pressures, arguing that rail modernization was essential.

“I’m saying this to the whole country: we need to prepare to stay on track,” he added. “These improvements to the way we manage our railways are in the best interest of the traveling public. † † If we don’t do this, these great companies, this great industry, will have further financial pressure, it will go bankrupt.”

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

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

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

Network Rail’s CEO Andrew Haines said he deeply regretted the disruption to passengers, but blamed the RMT for refusing to compromise, including on “archaic” working practices.

Haines added that ministers had agreed that Network Rail would go beyond the public sector salary cap and offer an increase of more than 3 percent because of the huge scope for productivity gains within the sector.

Lynch said agreeing to a pay package was only his third priority, after protecting jobs and terms and conditions. He added that the railway companies were looking at the negotiations “from the other side of the telescope”.

Although the government has refused to negotiate directly with the RMT, ministers effectively control the sector’s finances.

Network Rail is state-owned, while the Department of Transport sets annual budgets for the services operated by private train operators in the context of changes in the coronavirus era.

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

UKHospitality estimated that the strike would cost the sector £540m to £1bn as thousands of people would be unable to travel across the country, causing damage to bars, hotels, clubs, theaters and restaurants.

“This week we see people canceling events, but they don’t like rebooking them because they’re not sure when the next strikes will come,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the hospitality group.

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

The strike is likely to see more people staying at home during the week than at any time since the last pandemic lockdown, which is another hit for city center businesses.

But the Covid-driven adaptation to remote work has meant that union action is unlikely to be as disruptive as previous strikes.

Passenger numbers on Britain’s railways have recovered this month to around 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Freight services will be prioritized throughout the week, but supply chains in the UK will again come under pressure. It is expected that between 30 and 40 percent less freight will be transported by rail this week and the strikes will “add additional risk to already fragile supply chains,” said Maggie Simpson, head of the Rail Freight Group.

The train service closes at 6.30pm on Tuesday, with the last trains between London and cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh all leaving before 4pm.

Train drivers are members of another union and have not gone on strike, while the industry has sent managers and other personnel to the front lines to work on platforms and in signal boxes.

The disruption is likely to continue in the days between the official strikes, particularly in the morning, as trains will be out of place for their schedule.

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard and Daniel Thomas

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