Travel disruption as major train strike begins amid threat of nursing walkout

ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills takes a look at the travel disruption caused up and down the country as strike action on the railways gets underway

A month of rail disruption has begun after workers walked out for their first of a wave of 48-hour strikes, while nurses also prepare to take unprecedented industrial action.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) are pressing ahead with strikes at Network Rail – and 14 train companies – on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Trains will run from 7.30am to 6.30pm on this week’s strike days, although many parts of the country will have no services, including most of Scotland and Wales.

But with further walkouts planned, Network Rail has warned there will be significantly reduced services, with trains more crowded and likely to start later and finisher earlier until January 8.

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch told ITV News he is "sorry" businesses and passengers will be disrupted by the strikes in the run up to Christmas. 

A calendar showing upcoming dates of disruption for rail passengers. Credit: Network Rail

However, he insisted they were necessary as the current pay offer is "undervalued" because it is well below inflation.

The union leader said he is an "optimist" and believes a deal can be reached, though he warned there are some people in Whitehall who are obstructing one being made.

"We are ready to make a deal. I think the companies are ready to make a deal funnily enough," he said on Tuesday morning.

"I think the obstacle is some of the ideologists in Whitehall and in the government who won't facilitate a deal."

'The obstacle is some of the ideologists in Whitehall,' Mick Lynch said

"The recipe that they have put together is not acceptable to our people," the union leader added, claiming further strikes could be avoided if a deal - with better and more secure working conditions - could be agreed.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper has been repeatedly challenged on whether he had insisted on a condition requiring driver-only trains as part of an improved pay deal – something which the RMT is vehemently opposed to.

He told ITV News it is important to have a "reformed" railway to ensure it is financially sustainable, adding driver-only trains are not new within the rail industry. 

Transport Secretary Mark Harper wants Mick Lynch to recommend the pay deal to his members. Credit: PA

"Unfortunately, the strikes that are taking place this week are no unavoidable," Mr Harper told ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks, as he insisted there is a "fair deal on the table". 

"Even if they were called off at this notice there still would be massive disruption."

Many schools have already closed or partially closed, including in London, Gloucestershire and in the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, across the UK due to poor weather.

As the prospect of teacher strikes looms, new figures from the Official for National Statistics (ONS) shows the number of working days lost to industrial action in November reached the highest in more than a decade. Around 417,000 working days were lost because of labour disputes in October 2022, which is the highest number since November 2011.

During cabinet on Tuesday, Rishi Sunak said the strikes present a challenging period ahead, but reiterated the government has been fair in agreeing to the independent pay review bodies’ recommendations for public sector pay rises.

How are businesses and members of the public being impacted by the train strikes?

John Turner, the CEO of Visit Somerset, described how some of his members voiced concerns about the disruption the strikes are having on the local hospitality sector at a "critical" meeting last night.

"They were all saying that they were seeing a reduction in visitors staying," he said. 

"Visitors are having to go home early and are kind of very nervous about coming into Bath because of the trains strikes.

"So therefore instead of staying two days, they are staying one day. Restaurants are telling us that they are having customers cancel bookings, 26th, 27th, just after Christmas.

"So, all these critical parts to the Christmas period, which for a lot of our hospitality members it's a no- go now."

People outside Manchester Piccadilly station give their views on the RMT strikes

Some members of the public sympathise with the train strikers as a lot of public sector workers are in similar positions, though others have said the strikes hurt ordinary people trying to travel.

Amber Kottri, who owns a fashion store in Darlington, told ITV News that she is being hit by the postal strikes as well as the rail industrial action, with consumer spending down.

"The footfall is definitely down in the town," she said.

"Definitely the way that people are spending as well - people are a bit more worried than in previous years.

"Also with everything that is happening with the postal strikes we have definitely seen a huge dip, actually, in our online sales."

ITV News' Greg Eastell spoke to a business owner struggling amid the wave of strikes

As the strikes get underway, talks to avert the nursing industrial action have failed after the union leader behind the action accused Health Secretary Steve Barclay of “belligerence” and refusing to discuss pay.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) General Secretary Pat Cullen said nurses were “not getting an extra penny” despite their talks on Monday.

Southeastern trains parked in sidings near Ashford station in Kent. Credit: PA

Nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland now seem set to begin their first day of strike action on Thursday, with a second date set for Tuesday.

Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden warned the government “cannot eliminate” the risks of a wave of strike action throughout the month after chairing an emergency Cobra meeting on Monday.

He said ministers will be “straining every sinew” to minimise the disruption, with paramedics, postal workers and border officials among those scheduled to walk out.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden in Downing Street. Credit: PA

Health minister Will Quince admitted that taxis could be used to transport patients during ambulance strikes on December 21 and 28.

He told MPs it is “likely” that category one and two calls “where there is an immediate threat to life will be responded to”.

But he added: “We are looking at ways in which we can provide additional support for category three and category four, including things such as block-booking taxis and support through community healthcare, local authority fall services and community support.”

In the rail strikes, the RMT said 63.6% voted to reject Network Rail’s offer on an 83% turnout in what general secretary Mick Lynch said was a “huge rejection” of the public body’s “substandard offer”.

“The government is refusing to lift a finger to prevent these strikes and it is clear they want to make effective strike action illegal in Britain,” the union boss added.

“We will resist that and our members, along with the entire trade union movement, will continue their campaign for a square deal for workers, decent pay increases and good working conditions.”

A strike by members of Unite at Network Rail will not go ahead after they voted to accept the offer.

Network Rail had offered a 5% pay rise for this year – backdated to January – with another 4% at the start of 2023 and a guarantee of no compulsory job losses until January 2025.

The RMT’s executive recommended rejecting the offer, saying it was linked to “significant” changes to working practices.

RMT workers at Network Rail will also strike from 6pm on Christmas Eve until 6am on December 27.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Talks between Mr Barclay and Ms Cullen failed to find a breakthrough, with the Health Secretary refusing to negotiate on pay.

“The government was true to its word – they would not talk to me about pay,” the RCN boss said in a statement.

“I needed to come out of this meeting with something serious to show nurses why they should not strike this week. Regrettably, they are not getting an extra penny.

“Ministers had too little to say and I had to speak at length about the unprecedented strength of feeling in the profession.

“I expressed my deep disappointment at the belligerence – they have closed their books and walked away.”

The union is demanding a pay rise of 5% above the RPI rate of inflation, which was 14.2% in October, but Ms Cullen has hinted that she could compromise if the government negotiates on pay.

Mr Barclay has been sticking with the independent pay review body’s recommendation of a £1,400 raise.

He was under increasing pressure to settle a deal after strikes by ambulance staff and some NHS workers in Scotland were called off after members of two unions voted to accept the Scottish government’s recent pay deal.

Unite and Unison members called off action after negotiations with Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and the intervention of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The new deal would mean NHS workers in Scotland would remain the best-paid in the UK and workers would get pay rises ranging from £2,205 to £2,751.

For the lowest paid it would be a rise of 11.3%, with an average rise of 7.5%.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said Mr Barclay “again listened to the RCN’s position on pay and reiterated the government has agreed to the recommendations of the independent pay review body”.

“He said that any further pay increase would mean taking money away from frontline services and reducing the 7.2 million elective backlog,” the official added.

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