UK commuters unable to work remotely battle through rail strike chaos

For the handful of British commuters with no choice but to brave the strike-ravaged railways on Tuesday, the experience brought back memories of the dog days of the Covid-19 pandemic when most office workers stayed at home.

In Brighton on the south coast, only 30 or 40 passengers who could not now work from their spare bedrooms and kitchen tables waited on the concourse for the 7.15am Southern Rail service to London Victoria, most with jobs that required them to travel.

Among them was John Brett, a building site manager who needed to be in London as usual to supervise the construction of a new Soho hotel.

As someone who worked through the pandemic, Brett had little sympathy for the RMT union’s argument that railway workers deserved a pay rise because they had kept the country moving during that time.

“I am grateful they kept the trains running in the pandemic, but we all came to work too,” he said. “I pay a lot of money — £150 a week — to go up and down [to London] and we just need a better service.”

John Brett © Charlie Bibby/FT

But across the country, large numbers of other workers that have grown accustomed to working from home over the past two years did so.

“We’ve had two years of practice so are now well versed in being able to work from home when we need to,” said Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute.

“The world has changed. Most of our members now have hybrid working as the norm which means that the strikes are nowhere near as disruptive as they would have been three years ago.”

Road congestion data from location technology group TomTom showed only a moderate increase in congestion levels outside London. In Hull congestion was up just 4 per cent from a week ago, while the figure was 7 per cent in Liverpool and Newcastle.

At the other end of the Brighton-London line, at the capital’s Victoria Station, Stephanie Maull, a nurse at a hospital in west London, struggled into work via road, taking several buses from East Dulwich.

“Not everybody can work from home but that is unfortunately a fact of life and a fact of our jobs. I’ve chosen to do my job and I’m happy to go in,” she said.

Stephanie Maull © Anna Gordon/FT

Many Londoners also took to two wheels, with Santander Cycle hire volumes up 46 per cent on Tuesday morning compared with the previous day.

But if office workers were largely able to bypass the chaos, for leisure travellers and people-dependent industries such as restaurants, hotels, night clubs and taxi driving, the strikes caused personal disruption and significant financial losses.

In Manchester, Sandra Vint, from Middlesbrough, was forced to wait nearly six hours at the airport after landing from Turkey to find her 5.40am train home via York was cancelled. At 8.30am she was at Manchester Piccadilly, still waiting another hour for a connection.

But she said she did have sympathy for the striking rail staff. “Of course I do. I sympathise with anyone who doesn’t get enough pay. Prices are rising for everyone,” she said.

Sandra Vint © Jennifer Williams/FT

Outside the station, black-cab driver Yasir Abdelrahman Shaaeldin was enduring a long wait for passengers. “It’s very quiet,” he said. “On a morning like this lots of people would be coming in and out and this would be backed up with drivers — I’ve not yet had a single fare.”

For businesses such as restaurants and theatres which were hammered hard during the pandemic, the cost of the strike was counted, once again, in cancelled bookings and lost revenues. But this time there is no government protection for their losses.

Muniya Barua, managing director of policy and strategy at London First, the capital’s business group, said this week’s rail strikes have been forecast to reduce total gross value added — a metric of economic productivity — by £52mn across the capital.

Restaurateur Soren Jessen, who owns City of London restaurant 1 Lombard Street, said the venue would run at a loss this week, sapping the momentum of a strong start to June.

“Half of the à la carte [customers] have cancelled and 100 per cent of our events,” he said.

Soren Jessen © Anna Gordon/FT

Des Gunewardena, chair of D&D London, which owns 45 restaurants mostly in the London area, said forward bookings this week had dropped by a quarter, which was especially painful at one of the busiest times of year for corporate entertaining.

“The hospitality industry, especially in central London, has had enough challenges to deal with as we try and recover from Covid, deal with inflation . . . so we need this like a hole in the head,” he said.

Brighton train station © Charlie Bibby/FT

Uncertainty over whether the strikes would become a repeat feature over the summer was already triggering a rise in cancellations and postponements for future restaurant and conference bookings, according to Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality.

Evening trade for theatres, casinos and nightclubs would also be hit, warned Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, who said the cost would run into “millions” as the sector entered the busy festival season.

In a sign of what could be to come, the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden took what it said was the “very rare” step of cancelling its Tuesday night performance of Madama Butterfly as well as performances of Così fan tutte on Wednesday and Saturday, blaming the strikes.

And Glastonbury, the UK’s largest music festival, is also expected to be caught in the disruption as its doors open on Thursday.

A bus bound for Glastonbury © Simon Chapman/LNP

Some schools in London, where many more children travel to school than elsewhere, were also forced to make contingencies, planning for lift shares or even for staff to stay in hotels overnight, said Steve Chalke, the founder of Oasis, a chain of about 50 academies across the UK.

He said the industrial action highlighted the cost of living crisis affecting families at Oasis schools, where children have a higher than average rate of free school meals. “No one wants a strike — I don’t think even the unions want a strike,” he said. “But at the end of the day some of those transport workers will be the parents of children at our schools.”

Reporting by Peter Foster in Brighton, Daniel Thomas, Oliver Barnes, Philip Georgiadis and Bethan Staton in London, and Jennifer Williams in Manchester

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