Christmas shoppers and partygoers are facing a weekend of disruption to their festive plans as rail workers continue to take strike action.
Workers are continuing t heir 48-hour strike over pay, jobs and working conditions after talks between the leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), train company employers and Rail Minister Huw Merriman failed to make a breakthrough.
Many trains will start later and finish earlier today while some parts of the country will have no service at all, potentially spelling misery for millions.
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Workers for the key companies running services in Greater Manchester - Northern, TransPennine Express and Avanti West Coast - are among the thousands to have walked out.
Rail timetables for the region have been crippled as the majority of timetabled services will not be running. Northern, TransPennine Express and Avanti West Coast have all urged members of the public not to travel by train if possible until Sunday.
Despite the strong words of warning from the north's rail operators, there are a handful of services running in Manchester today. Northern is running several services from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Airport via the city centre, as well as in the opposite direction. The final hourly service from Piccadilly to Liverpool leaves at 16.54, with the last service leaving Liverpool at 17.02.
TransPennine Express will be running a number of services each way between Manchester Airport and Preston, stopping at Piccadilly.
However, the disruption on the railways is likely to increase demand for taxis and buses around Greater Manchester on what is usually the busiest weekend of the year.
It could also serve as a blow to shops and hospitality businesses looking to boost trade in the key Christmas period.
Thousands of rail workers have already staged strikes this week as part of a long-running dispute.
Today is the fourth day of action this week and disruption is expected across the rest of the month due to an overtime ban by RMT members at 14 train operators.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: "It’s better we are talking than not, so the rail minister convened a meeting on Thursday with the RMT representatives along Network Rail and the train operators. We exchanged some ideas and some possibilities, there was no negotiations at that, nothing arising tangible out of that.
“But what he did having heard that as the facilitator, as they describe themselves and the people that ultimately own the purse strings, is he invited us and requested that we get together and hold further talks going forward and we’ll do that in the next period if the companies want to get engaged in it.”
Strikes will also be carried out by members of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) at six train companies on Saturday in an ongoing dispute over pay, job security, and terms and conditions. The union accused the government of "harming the nation" by "blocking" talks to resolve the dispute.
TSSA members at Avanti West Coast, c2c, East Midlands Railway, Southeastern, South Western Railway, and TransPennine Express will walk out for the day, hitting rail services on routes across the country. Meanwhile, industrial action short of strike is taking place at CrossCountry, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, GTR, LNER, Northern, and West Midlands Trains.
Frank Ward, TSSA interim general secretary, said: “Rail workers across the country deserve a pay rise and job security, especially so as the Tory cost-of-living crisis cripples household finances.
“This strike action was entirely avoidable. It beggars belief that the government has forced this industrial action on rail workers and the wider economy when they have had every opportunity and the ability to resolve the dispute. This Conservative Government is actively harming the nation with its reckless anti-worker agenda.
“As we have shown this week in Network Rail, our union can reach agreement with employers where there are genuine negotiations. It’s crystal clear that Rishi Sunak’s government is responsible for blocking negotiations with train companies and ruining Christmas for rail workers and passengers alike.”
Steve Montgomery, who chairs the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Regrettably, the RMT leadership’s refusal to put our proposed 8% pay offer to its membership means we are unable to reach a resolution at this stage, although we remain open to talks. With the deadline having passed where disruption could be avoided even if strikes were called off, our focus is on giving passengers the maximum possible certainty so they can make their festive plans.
“No-one wanted 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 continue to urge RMT leaders to put our proposals to their members rather than condemning them to weeks of lost pay either side of Christmas during a cost-of-living crisis.”
Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said: “The RMT has deliberately chosen to try and ruin Christmas for millions of passengers and businesses. They’re also intent on inflicting a monumental act of harm on an industry still desperate to recover from post-Covid challenges by sabotaging a vital £100 million programme of rail upgrades planned for Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The industry will do all it can to keep services running and projects on-track but serious disruption is inevitable given the RMT’s action.
“In talks over the months we have sought to address all the RMT’s concerns by putting a decent pay rise on the table, guaranteeing a job for anyone that wants one, significantly raising base salaries for the lowest paid and offering a new, huge rail travel discount scheme for members, and their families. By any reasonable measure, we have put a fair deal on the table.”
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