Rail strikes: passengers face fresh wave of weekend disruption

People urged only to travel if absolutely necessary on last weekend before Christmas

Rail passengers face another day of reduced services on Saturday as thousands of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) staff continue a 48-hour strike.

People have been urged to only attempt travel if absolutely necessary on the last full weekend before Christmas, with only a skeleton service running and all train journeys ending by early evening.

Rail firms advised passengers to plan ahead and check online for updates, with about 20% of normal services running between 7.30am and 6.30pm on Saturday, and no trains at all in some areas. Disruption is expected to continue into Sunday morning.

Thousands of RMT members at Network Rail and 14 train operators – joined by Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) members at six operators on Saturday – will take action in the dispute over pay and conditions.

It will be the last strike before Christmas Eve, giving some opportunity for people wishing to travel. However, an overtime ban starting for RMT train staff from Sunday will continue to affect services until January, with severe disruption on operators including Chiltern and South Western Railway.

A small number of National Highways controllers and traffic officers in the PCS union will also continue strikes on Saturday, potentially inflating any disruption on the roads in the event of a traffic incident. The agency, which controls strategic roads and motorways, said no roads would be closed and remained confident of mitigation plans it had in place.

Faint hopes were raised that the rail dispute may reach a conclusion before further strikes in January.

The union’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, said on Friday there were “no new proposals” but more meetings and “soundings-out” of possible solutions, after an apparently positive meeting between the RMT, the rail minister, Huw Merriman, and rail industry leaders on Thursday evening.

Lynch said they “had an exchange about what might be possible and some ways forward and ideas that all the parties shared … There are no actual negotiations; there are some soundings-out of what might be developed.”

However, he told Sky News he was “optimistic” that a deal could be reached with compromise, adding: “I know that there are some very simple steps that the employers and ourselves could take together to get a solution to this.”

The TSSA, whose members earlier this week voted to accept the improved Network Rail pay offer, also remains in dispute with train operators, with some industrial action across virtually all those in England contracted to the Department for Transport.

Transport for Wales, which has not been affected by strike action, confirmed on Friday it had reached agreement with all rail unions for a 4.5% pay increase.

The TSSA’s interim leader, Frank Ward, said it had reached agreement where there were “genuine negotiations”, adding: “It’s crystal clear that Rishi Sunak’s government is responsible for blocking negotiations with train companies and ruining Christmas for rail workers and passengers alike.”

The next RMT strike at Network Rail is due from 6pm on 24 December until 6am on 27 December. Although the union said it should not affect passengers, with virtually no trains over the Christmas bank holiday period, which is devoted to engineering works, Network Rail said it would bring trains on Christmas Eve to an early halt.

One of the few firms hoping to operate, Eurostar, announced on Friday it would have to cancel Boxing Day services. While some cross-Channel services had run on previous strike days, it said it had been told that the UK’s high-speed line to London would be closed.

Retailers and the hospitality and entertainment sectors have complained of mounting losses with high street footfall and people’s travel plans affected.

Figures from location technology firm TomTom showed morning rush hour road congestion during the strikes was significantly higher in London, Liverpool and Glasgow compared with a week before, while high street footfall dropped up to 17% on strike days this week, according to Springboard.

Research by the RAC found young people in particular were seeing Christmas travel plans affected by the strikes, with two in five of 18- to 24-year-olds having to alter their trips. Of those, about half were now planning to travel by car instead, and a quarter did not yet know how to get to their intended destinations in time for Christmas.

The RAC spokesperson Rod Dennis said: “There’s no question that the strikes are going to make this year’s Christmas getaway on the roads busier than normal.”

Meanwhile, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have both halted the sale of new tickets for flights into Heathrow on the days affected by Border Force strikes over Christmas.

A spokesperson for the airport said the decision followed a request by Border Force, though they added that no flights had had to be cancelled as a result.

Border Force staff at Heathrow terminals 2, 3, 4, and 5 – as well as at Birmingham, Cardiff, Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester airports and the Port of Newhaven – are planning strikes for 23-26 and 28-31 December.


Gwyn Topham and Christy Cooney

The GuardianTramp

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