15-year-old Megan, a student at a Bradford grammar school, is visibly tense. Next week GCSE exams are due across the country, an important qualification in the UK, comparable to secondary school.
Unlike in 2020 and 2021, when the pandemic prevailed, the exams will again be held in attendance. But in view of an imminent mega strike by the British railways, Megan cannot take the train to school as usual on these days of all days.
“It’s just really stressful,” she told the BBC. So far she has no idea how to get to school, her working parents cannot help her.
She will probably try to organize a ride. “But with the traffic and everyone having to somehow find a ride, it’s going to be a nightmare,” she sighed.
Others fear for booked trips, for example to the Glastonbury Festival or to a crucial cricket test match against New Zealand, when from Tuesday an announced strike by the signal workers at Network Rail and numerous employees of railway operators in the country will shut down large parts of the route network. Daily trips to work or to the family doctor will also be affected.
On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of the coming week, the strikers will stop work. Instead of the usual 20,000 connections a day, the timetable will then be reduced to around 4,500 trains.
Where there are trains, the service begins at 7.30 a.m. and ends at 6.30 p.m. In large parts of Wales and Scotland there are no trains at all, and west of Plymouth in the south-west there is also a complete standstill. The railway operators warn that significant restrictions can also be expected in the days in between due to the consequences.
Those who do not have to drive should not set off, warn the railway operators. “We must be under no illusions, the service we can offer will be significantly limited, travelers need to be aware of this and plan ahead and only travel if it is really necessary,” said Andrew Haines, chief executive of network operator Network Rail.
Haines admitted that talks with the RMT, the union representing rail, maritime and transport workers, have not progressed as hoped. He was not optimistic that an agreement could be reached in the coming days.
The strike was sparked by salaries, working conditions and imminent layoffs. The network operator Network Rail is now state-owned again. After the outbreak of the corona pandemic, rail operations were de facto nationalized again.
The private operators had lost a large part of their income during the lockdown and were therefore no longer sustainable. In the following two years, the companies were supported with £16 billion (€18.5 billion) in tax money.
The rail workers’ union is accusing Network Rail of wanting to cut 2,500 jobs as part of an austerity program demanded by the government. Safety checks and the maintenance of the route network are particularly affected.
Train drivers have also been suffering from frozen salaries and worsening working conditions for years. Many of those affected are particularly upset because during the peak phase of the pandemic they were always praised as being particularly important for the functioning of the country, but so far have not seen sufficient financial recognition. With the cost of living increasing significantly, the situation is no longer acceptable, unionists stressed.
A wage adjustment in the amount of inflation – in April the price increase was nine percent – is not possible, said Haines. However, the two percent cap that applies to the public sector could be exceeded.
He was “deeply frustrated” that the union was opposed to the use of technology. One of the plans is to use more drones to check the condition of the tracks and to monitor the voltage along the rails using digital technology.
Commentators are already calling for the largest strike in recent history in the country. In fact, the walkouts mark one of the most severe cuts since 1989, when railway workers stopped work for six weeks.
In the meantime, however, the importance of trade unions has declined. While more than half of the country’s workers were organized in the 1970s, today it is less than a quarter.
The British also have to adjust to restrictions in other areas in the summer. It is already certain that the London underground will also be on strike next Tuesday, also over wages and working conditions.
Another transport union, the TSSA, is preparing strike votes. There are also threats of delays at Ryanair and British Airways, as well as at the British post office Royal Mail and the telecom provider BT Group.
After all, changed working habits should contribute to the fact that the economic costs of the walkout in the coming week will lag behind previous major strikes.
During the Corona lockdown, many employees have set themselves up in such a way that they can work from home without any problems. According to Paul Dales, chief economist at Capital Economics, this probably only dampened economic output by 0.3 to 0.4 percent in June.
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