Driver outage halts trains as UK summer strike wave spreads

LONDON — Thousands of British train drivers quit their jobs on Saturday in a strike over jobs, wages and conditions, hampering services across much of the country. The move was the latest in an expanding series of strikes by British workers seeking substantial hikes to offset rising food and fuel prices.

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, football fans on their way to games and families seeking solace by the sea during a heat wave were among others forced to change their plans.

This was a summer of layovers in Britain. Thousands of railway cleaners, signalmen and maintenance workers staged a series of one-day strikes in June and July. More strikes are planned next week on rural trains and on London’s bus and tube networks.

The disputes are over pay, working conditions and job security, while Britain’s railways struggle to adapt to travel and commuting habits that have been changed – perhaps forever – by the coronavirus pandemic.

There were nearly 1 billion train journeys in the UK 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 staff after two years of government emergency funding propped them up.

Unions accuse the British Conservative government of preventing train companies – which are privately owned but highly regulated – from making a better offer.

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“We’re in a position where we say ‘That won’t be enough’, they say ‘It’s up to the government’, we talk to the government and they say, ‘You have to talk to the employers’, and then we end with a situation where it’s going in circles,” said Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen.

The Transport Ministry said claims of government interference were “completely false”.

More public and private sector unions are planning strikes as Britain faces its worst cost of living crisis in decades. Postmen, lawyers, British Telecom staff, dock workers and garbage collectors have all announced strikes for later this month.

Inflation in the UK has hit a 40-year high of 9.4%, and the Bank of England says it could rise to 13% later this year during a recession. The average UK household fuel bill is up by more than 50% so far in 2022 as the war in Ukraine puts a strain on global oil and natural gas supplies. Another increase is expected in October, when the average bill is expected to be £3,500 ($4,300) a year.

In addition to travel chaos, airline travelers in many countries face delays and disruptions as airports struggle to cope with staff shortages and skyrocketing demand for flights after two pandemic-hit years.

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