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UK Rail Walkout Sees Millions Revert to Lockdown Working Life

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(Bloomberg) -- The biggest UK rail strike in more than three decades saw millions revert to lockdown-era home working, leaving stations empty and shopping streets deserted, and with the prospect of further disruptions later this week.

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Some 40,000 staff from train firms and track operator Network Rail began a walkout midnight Tuesday, with further stoppages planned for Thursday and Saturday. A separate action by 10,000 London Underground staff has hobbled transport within the capital, cutting off typical commuter routes.

But far from the chaotic scenes that have come with shutdowns prior to the coronavirus pandemic, train operators reported quiet stations during the usual morning peak, suggesting most people had found other ways to get to their jobs or were working from home. More than a million commuters in London alone opted not to travel, Transport for London said, with Tube journeys down 95% during the morning.

Labor groups led by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers remain at odds with the government over issues such as pay, job losses and perceived budget cuts, raising the prospect of further disruption. The two sides exchanged robust views via separate Sky News interviews on Tuesday, with Transport Minister Grant Shapps saying the walkout is “taking us back to the bad old days of union strikes” and “hurting precisely the people they claim to be protecting.”

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch retorted that the situation is “a mess” of the minister’s making and pledged to “go on strike again if we don’t get a settlement to the issues.” He warned against a Shapps proposal to bring in temporary workers, saying they wouldn’t be adequately trained.

The failure of negotiations means only about 20% of national rail services are running, with Scotland and Wales among the worst affected areas. Ticket prices are expected to spiral on the days between strikes due to the limited service, suggesting many will continue to abandon attempts to travel through to next week. Events that may be disrupted include the sold out Glastonbury music festival in rural southwest England -- attended by about 200,000 people -- leading to clogged roads and long journeys.

Train operators including Arriva Plc-owned CrossCountry and FirstGroup Plc’s Avanti West Coast and Great Western Rail all reported subdued conditions as train users heeded government warnings and stayed at home. A spokesman for Avanti West Coast said a London-Birmingham train that was in operation Tuesday filled only 100 of 600 seats.

At Kings Cross in London, even the RMT was impacted. Only about half a dozen members and a few students gathered to protest, with the union’s George Welch saying attendance was severely constrained by a lack of transport options for those living outside London.

Charles Chikezie, an Uber driver, said he had been struggling for work in the morning with the usual flood of commuters to the City of London not materializing. It was a similar story on high streets, with footfall in central London 27% lower than the previous Tuesday -- in line with lockdown levels -- and 8.5% down across the whole of the UK, according to retail data group Springboard.

Budget Cuts

The RMT’s Lynch blames the government for the crisis, saying the root of the problem is £4 billion ($4.9 billion) of budget cuts -- £2 billion each for Transport for London and the national railways. Shapps calls that analysis a “fundamental misunderstanding,” and said the money missing from the railways budget is down to lower takings from fares after passenger numbers failed to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Pandemic Hit

Figures released by the Office of Road and Rail on Thursday showed total journeys at only 62% of the pre-pandemic tally in the quarter through March. That’s partly due to changing commuter habits in the wake of coronavirus lockdowns, with more people continuing to work from home.

“We need to get ready to stay the course,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a cabinet meeting Tuesday, having earlier warned against higher pay rises due to the need to tackle rising costs of living.

His ministers have suggested restraint on pay rises is needed to rein in inflation, which is already at a four-decade high.

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