LONDON -- Thousands of U.K. train drivers walked off the job Saturday in a strike over jobs, pay and conditions, scuppering services across much of the country. The action was the latest in a spreading series of strikes by British workers seeking substantial raises to offset soaring prices for food and fuel.
The 24-hour strike by members of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen halted trains on major routes, including the main lines between London and Scotland and commuter services around the capital.
Weekend workers, soccer fans heading for games and families seeking seaside solace from a heat wave were among those forced to change their plans.
This has been a summer of travel disruption in Britain. Thousands of railway cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers staged a series of one-day strikes in June and July. More strikes are scheduled next week on nationwide trains and on London’s bus and subway network.
The disputes center on pay, working conditions and job security as Britain’s railways struggle to adapt to travel and commuting habits changed — perhaps forever — by the coronavirus pandemic.
There were almost 1 billion train journeys in the U.K. in the year to March, compared to 1.7 billion in the 12 months before the pandemic, and rail companies are looking to cut costs and staffing after two years in which emergency government funding kept them afloat.
Unions accuse Britain's Conservative government of preventing train companies — which are privately owned but heavily regulated — from making a better offer.
“We find ourselves in a position where we are saying ‘That won’t be enough,’ they say ‘It’s down to the government,’ we talk to the government and they say ‘You have got to talk to the employers,’ and then we end up with a situation where it goes round and round in circles,” said Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen.
The Department for Transport said claims of government meddling were “entirely false.”
More public- and private-sector unions are planning strikes as Britain faces its worst cost-of-living crisis in decades. Postal workers, lawyers, British Telecom staff, dock workers and garbage collectors have all announced walkouts for later this month.
U.K. inflation has hit a 40-year high of 9.4%, and the Bank of England says it could rise to 13% amid a recession later this year. The average U.K. household fuel bill has risen more than 50% so far in 2022 as the war in Ukraine squeezes global oil and natural gas supplies. Another increase is due in October, when the average bill is forecast to hit 3,500 pounds ($4,300) a year.
Adding to the travel chaos, air travelers in many countries are facing delays and disruption as airports struggle to cope with staff shortages and skyrocketing demand for flights after two pandemic-hit years.