Britain's biggest rail strike in 30 years kicked off on Tuesday as tens of thousands of staff walked out in a dispute over pay and jobs. Video Credit: Anadolu Agency via Reuters

Dubai: About 40,000 railway workers in the UK walked off the job on Tuesday, bringing the train network to a crawl in the country’s biggest transit strike for three decades.

Reports said scores of people waited at bus stops on the outskirts of London around 6am, but gave up as services towards the capital carried on without stopping, already full.

So, why are railway workers in the UK on strike and how long will it last?

Here’s a closer look at the strike and how it has affected millions around the country.

Why are railway workers in the UK on strike?

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) says that that many of the strikers are among the lowest paid on the railway networks, including cleaners. The union argues the strikes are necessary as wages have failed to keep pace with UK inflation, which has hit a 40-year high and is on course to keep rising.

They are striking for better pay, working conditions and job security as Britain’s railways struggle to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. RMT general-secretary Mick Lynch described as “unacceptable” offers of below-inflation pay rises by both overground train operators and London Underground that runs the Tube in the capital.

Waterloo UK rail strike
A view of trains on the platform at Waterloo Station as a station worker stands nearby, on the first day of national rail strike in London, Britain, June 21, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

The RMT says it will not accept rail firms’ offer of a 3% raise, which is far below the rate of inflation, currently running at 9%.

The union accuses the Conservative government of refusing to give rail firms enough flexibility to offer a substantial pay increase.

The RMT says the strikes are the biggest dispute on Britain’s railway network since 1989.

Waterloo platform UK rail strike
Closed platforms, during a rail workers strike, at London Waterloo railway station in London, UK, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Has the London Underground also been affected?

Yes. RMT members on the London Underground are staging a 24-hour Tube train stoppage on Tuesday.

How long will the strike last?

Apart from Tuesday, the walkouts will continue on Thursday and Saturday and risk causing significant disruption to major events, including the Glastonbury music festival.

Schools have warned that thousands of teenagers taking national exams will also be affected.

Rail operators have warned of disruption throughout the week, with only around 20 per cent of services running during the walkouts while lines not affected by strike action still having to reduce services.

Bus stop waterloo rail strike UK
Commuters wait at a bus stop, during a rail workers strike, near London Victoria railway station in London, UK, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Image Credit: Bloomberg

What does the government say?

The government says it is not involved in the talks, but has warned that big raises will spark a wage-price spiral driving inflation even higher.

1million


commuters estimated to have stayed home due to the strike on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused unions of "harming the very people they claim to be helping’’ and called for "a sensible compromise for the good of the British people and the rail workforce.’’

The walkout is “taking us to the bad old days of union strikes,” Transport Minister Grant Shapps told Sky News on Tuesday, while pledging to make contingency plans for any further industrial action. “It’s not acceptable to disrupt businesses that are just getting back on their feet - they are hurting precisely the people they claim to be protecting,” Bloomberg reported.

Graphic UK rail
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal, Gulf News

Were talks held to address the issues?

Unions rejected a last-minute offer from train companies to call off the strike. A proposal from track manager Network Rail was considered and rejected on Friday, and another one from train companies was turned down on Monday, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said in statement.

Lynch blames the government, saying the root of the problem is 4 billion pounds ($4.9 billion) of budget cuts - 2 billion pounds each for Transport for London and the national railways. “That is hobbling this industry and it’s forcing the companies to implement transport austerity and massive cuts to our system,” he said.

How has the strike affected the people?

It is estimated that a million London commuters stayed at home during the strike.

100 million pounds loss to economy estimated
Tube journeys were down 95 per cent on Tuesday morning.
The rail and underground strikes are estimated to cost the UK economy almost 100 million pounds, with London facing the biggest blow, according to an analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research released on June 10. That’s in part because almost half of households in the capital don’t own a car.
Bus passengers rail strike UK
Passengers queue for a bus outside the Waterloo Station, on the first day of national rail strike in London, Britain, June 21, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Many train stations were largely deserted on Tuesday morning, with only about 20 per cent of trains scheduled to run.

"I definitely will not be able to get a bus because they are packed. I will have to get an Uber," AP quoted nurse manager Priya Govender as saying.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of industry body UKHospitality, said the walkout would cost restaurants, cafes and bars much-needed business.

"Fragile consumer confidence will take a further hit, thousands of people able and willing to spend money in hospitality venues across the country will be prevented from doing so, while staff will undoubtedly struggle to even get to work," she told AP.

Will the strikes expand to other sectors?

The strikes are compounding wider travel chaos after airlines were forced to cut flights owing to staff shortages, causing long delays and frustration for passengers.

Other areas of the public sector are set to hold strikes.

The Criminal Bar Association, representing senior lawyers in England and Wales, have voted to strike from next week in a row over legal aid funding, AFP reports.

Justice minister James Cartlidge called the walkout “disappointing” given that the court system is already battling significant backlogs in cases caused by the pandemic.

Four weeks of action begin on Monday and Tuesday, increasing by one day each week until a five-day strike from July 18.

Teaching staff and workers in the state-run National Health Service are reportedly also mulling strike action.

And several other transport unions are balloting members over possible stoppages that could occur in the coming weeks.

rail worker UK leaflets strike
A rail worker hands out leaflets during a strike outside the Waterloo Station, on the first day of national rail strike in London, Britain, June 21, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Has the UK faced labour strikes before?

The outbreak of industrial action has drawn comparison with the 1970s, when Britain faced widespread labour strikes including the 1978-79 “winter of discontent”.

The number of British workers who are trade union members has roughly halved since the 1970s with walkouts much less common, in part due to changes made by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to make it more difficult to call a strike.

UK Victoria rail strike
A near empty concourse, during a rail workers strike, at London Victoria railway station in London, UK, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Image Credit: Bloomberg

The government says it will now change the law quickly to force train operators to deliver a minimum service on strike days, and allow employers to bring in temporary staff.

How many people use the railways in the UK every year?

A total of 990 million rail passenger journeys were made in Great Britain from 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022. Passenger revenue totalled 5.9 billion pounds during the year.

- With inputs from agencies