Brits are facing another week of travel chaos as rail strikes drag into the new year, disrupting the return to workplaces following the holidays and dealing another blow to retail and hospitality businesses.
Some 40,000 rail workers began five days of strike action over pay on Tuesday, shutting down rail services across the United Kingdom and continuing months of unrest that blighted travel for much of last year.
Britain’s largest transport union, RMT, said workers will strike on January 3, 4, 6 and 7. ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, will also walk out on January 5.
Passengers should travel only if “absolutely necessary,” according to the Rail Delivery Group, which speaks for train operating companies and Network Rail, owner of Britain’s rail infrastructure. It said that around half of the rail network will shut down on strike days, with only about 20% of normal services running.
The travel chaos will delay the return to offices following the holidays, a disappointing start to the year for stores and restaurants hoping for a new year bump to sales after earlier rail strikes hurt Christmas trading.
UKHospitality, an industry group, estimates this week’s strikes will cost pubs, restaurants, hotels and other venues about £200 million ($239 million) in lost sales. That’s on top of “vital-pre Christmas sales” losses of £1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) in December, according to CEO Kate Nicholls.
The rail strikes will make city centers “ghost towns” for another week, Nicholls said.
“The sector has struggled to recover from Covid and these protracted rail strikes since May have made that bounce back much tougher,” she added.
Strikes have swept across the United Kingdom over the past year, as workers grapple with a cost-of-living crisis. Wages have stagnated and failed to keep pace with inflation, which reached a four-decade high of 11.1% in October and remains elevated, at 10.7%.
That’s sparked disputes with employers, leading to strikes encompassing railways, schools, hospitals, and the postal service. Nurses and ambulance workers are set to take further industrial action later this month.
According to PwC, the average British worker’s pay in 2023 is expected to fall back to 2006 levels once inflation is taken into account. Real wages, which factor in inflation, are expected to have fallen by as much as 3% in 2022, and could drop another 2% in 2023, PwC predicted last month in a report shared with CNN.
RMT claimed Monday that the UK government was blocking its attempts to resolve the disagreement over pay.
“We will continue our industrial action campaign while we work towards a negotiated resolution,” the union’s general secretary Mick Lynch said in a statement.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, said its members have not had a pay rise for nearly four years. “We don’t want to go on strike but the companies have pushed us into this place,” he added.
A spokesperson for the Department of Transport said the government “stands ready to facilitate a resolution to rail disputes.”
“It’s time the unions came to the table and played their part as well,” the spokesperson added.
In a statement, Network Rail said that the RMT strike was “unnecessary and deeply damaging” to the railway and the economy.
The company added that two of three unions had already accepted a pay increase worth over 9% and it urged RMT to reconsider “the best deal put before any railways trade union for decades.”
“We hope to get back round the table once this week’s strikes are over,” it added.
— Eve Brennan contributed to this report.