Driver strike halts trains as strike wave in UK spreads

LONDON (AP) – Thousands of British train drivers walked off the job Saturday in a strike over jobs, pay and conditions, scrapping services across much of the country. The action was the latest in a series of strikes by British workers seeking significant increases to offset skyrocketing 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 main lines between London and Scotland and commuter services around the capital.

Weekend workers, football fans heading to matches and families seeking solace by the sea from a heatwave were among those forced to change their plans.

This has been a summer of travel disruption in the UK. Thousands of railway cleaners, signalmen, maintenance workers staged a series of one-day strikes in June and July. More strikes are planned next week on nationwide trains and on London’s bus and Tube networks.

The disputes are over 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 Britain in the year to March, compared with 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 aid 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 say ‘It won’t be enough’, they say ‘It’s up to the authorities’, we talk to the authorities and they say ‘You have 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 interference were “completely untrue”.

Several public and private sector unions are planning strikes as Britain faces its worst cost of living crisis in decades. Postal workers, lawyers, British Telecom workers, dock workers and rubbish collectors have all announced their resignations for later this month.

UK 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 fuel bill for UK households has risen more than 50% so far in 2022, as the war in Ukraine squeezes global oil and natural gas supplies. Another increase will come in October, when the average bill is expected to reach 3,500 pounds ($4,300) a year.

In addition to the travel chaos, air travelers in many countries are facing delays and disruptions as airports struggle to cope with staff shortages and soaring demand for flights after two years of the pandemic.

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