Rail strikes brought fresh misery for millions across the country on Saturday, including major disruption to Birmingham as it hosted one of the busiest days of the Commonwealth Games.
The latest round of strikes during a summer of chaos for passengers prompted bitter exchanges between union leaders and ministers.
As thousands of train drivers from seven operators, including West Midlands Trains and Southeastern, walked out over pay, vast stretches of the rail network in England and Wales were left with no services.
It also meant that there were no trains in England’s second biggest city apart from a “special shuttle” between Birmingham New Street and Birmingham International to help people reach Commonwealth Games events.
With frustration evident on both sides, Aslef accused transport secretary Grant Shapps of lying about negotiations over this summer’s rail strikes. Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, said: “We’re not dragging our feet in negotiations; we negotiate with 14 private companies. We do not work for the government or the DfT [Department for Transport].”
Whelan was responding to comments by Shapps, who had accused “militant union leaders” of bringing the country to a standstill.
Writing in the Times, Shapps had said: “RMT [union] is stalling on reform and Aslef is dragging its feet in negotiations while both call more strikes.”
Later, the Department for Transport issued a statement saying it was “misleading” to suggest that Shapps should get involved in negotiations over pay and working practices.
Amid the mounting acrimony, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, entered the row by describing the strikes as a “cynical manipulation of the Games”. He said: “It is an international celebration and I feel it is a great shame it is being targeted in this way.”
The packed Games timetable on Saturday included gymnastics, T20 cricket, swimming, boxing, hockey and netball.
Those events, however, were not the only thing affected. Travel to the first games of the season for most English Football League clubs and a Lady Gaga gig in London were also hit, the latest chapter in a series of walkouts.
On Wednesday, passengers faced disruption due to a rail strike after about 40,000 RMT members at Network Rail and 14 other train companies walked out over pay, job cuts and changes to terms and conditions.
On Saturday Aslef said it was striking because rising inflation meant the value of workers’ wages was falling, while rail bosses were pocketing huge salaries. Explaining the strikes, Whelan said they were “the last resort” and that many Aslef members had not received a pay rise for three years and wanted the “ability to negotiate”. “The people we work for have been making hundreds of millions of pounds and giving money to their shareholders,” Whelan said.
The latest strike, carried out by about 5,000 members, also affected Arriva Rail London – which operates the London Overground – Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains and Heathrow Express.
No trains ran on Southeastern, while operators including Great Western – which runs services between England and Wales – had severely reduced services.
Snow Hill station in central Birmingham was entirely closed, with picketers standing metres from the route of the Commonwealth marathon, which itself closed many roads in the city.
Games organisers were encouraging ticket holders travelling locally to walk or cycle if possible, and said additional park and ride services were being put in place.
An extra 600 buses were used to help visitors get to the 16 venues where events were taking place.
Saturday’s statement from the DfT was issued to clarify the role of Shapps during the strikes.
It said: “His role is to protect the public purse, ensuring value for money for the hardworking people of this country.
“As such, he’s required to set the limits of taxpayer support and ultimately sign off on any deal, not to be involved in negotiating one, and his contracts with operators allow him to do precisely that.”