A generation of passengers will be put off travelling by train for good because of industrial action, ministers fear, as Britain enters the worst week of rail disruption for 30 years.
Millions of people have been advised to avoid using the railways as the country faces five days of industrial action, effectively delaying the return to offices by a week as an estimated 80,000 trains are cancelled.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union is staging two 48-hour walkouts on Tuesday and Friday, and drivers from the Aslef union will strike on Thursday. Rail industry sources have claimed that 16 million journeys could be affected this week.
Ministers and the industry are increasingly concerned that the strikes are doing long-term damage to rail travel while costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds. Rail travel is already significantly below pre-pandemic levels because of the rise in the number of people who are now choosing to work from home.
A government source said: “This is an act of self-harm — a generation of passengers will just write off the railways. We’re talking about permanent scarring. The longer the strikes continue, the greater the risk.”
There are no signs of a resolution. Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, accused the government of blocking a deal and said that “unprecedented ministerial interference” was hampering the train companies in negotiations.
He said: “The train companies say their hands have been tied by the government, while the government, which does not employ us, says it’s up to the companies to negotiate with us. We are always happy to negotiate — we never refuse to sit down at the table and talk — but these companies have offered us nothing, and that is unacceptable.”
Passengers, including those returning to work after the festive break, have been warned to expect “significant disruption” as only a limited number of trains will run. They have been advised to travel only if absolutely necessary, to allow extra time and check when first and last trains will depart. There may also be disruption to services on January 8 as workers return to their duties.
On RMT strike days about half the network will shut down, with about 20 per cent of normal services running. Services that do run will start later and finish earlier than usual, with trains typically running between 7.30am and 6.30pm on the day of the strike.
The train drivers’ strike on Thursday will affect 15 operators and will result in even fewer services running, with some companies offering “very significantly reduced” timetables.
Daniel Mann, director of industry operations at the Rail Delivery Group, said: “No one wants to see these strikes go ahead and we can only apologise to passengers and to the many businesses who will be hit by this unnecessary and damaging disruption. We would advise passengers to only travel if it is absolutely necessary during this period, allow extra time and check when their first and last train will depart.”
The hospitality industry called on Monday for an end to the strikes as restaurants, pubs and bars braced themselves for another £200 million hit to their takings this week. The cancellation of rail services is estimated to have already cost the industry £1.5 billion in lost sales over the festive period.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, which represents pubs, hotels and restaurants, said the latest industrial action would make city centres “ghost towns for yet another week”, adding: “This piles further misery on commuters, visitors and tourists as well as hard-pressed hospitality workers and businesses already vulnerable due to the loss of vital pre-Christmas sales. The sector has struggled to recover from Covid and these protracted rail strikes since May have made that bounceback much tougher. Enough is enough; this needs to end now.”
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, called on the unions, rail companies and the government to find a solution to avoid “delivering another catastrophic blow to our already struggling industry”.
A rail industry source said: “With dissatisfaction levels rising, the strikes clearly risk a permanent decline in train journeys. That is bad for the industry, the environment and our hard-working staff. The customers we depend on are likely to become more disillusioned and many will abandon the railway.”
Unions rejected claims yesterday that they were running out of money. The Public and Commercial Services union told Times Radio that industrial action could continue until summer.
Dave Penman, head of the FDA civil service union, said that the government’s planned anti-strike legislation would have little impact given the scale of turnouts.