Rail strikes: Is this the end of the daily commute?

The RMT has announced another wave of rail strikes starting in March. We look at how employers can navigate the impending rail strikes via alternate commute methods.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Yesterday, members of The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) announced further strike dates across UK railways after rejecting another pay offer from train operators and Network Rail last week.

The union’s 40,000 members will strike on 16 March. Train staff also plan to walk out for three further days, on 18 and 30 March and 1 April.

Both rail workers and bus drivers have elected to strike as a result of wages failing to keep up with the cost of living crisis. The recent pattern of disruption has been the most significant wave of industrial action since the 1980s miners’ strike. So far, over two million days have been lost to strikes since June last year.

The strikes are hitting amid a downward trend of commuting to work by car, rail, or bus. ONS data shows that 29% of today’s company employees and 40% of sole traders report engaging in home only or hybrid working.

Business owners are now looking for alternative travel methods to reduce the impact of employee lateness and support financial wellness in the workplace.

What are the alternative means of commuting?

For the typically office-based organisations that can choose hybrid working, there is a clear and obvious solution to the strikes. Their employees get the luxury of working from home on a strike day – and may even have been planning on staying home even without industrial action hitting.

But, for the industries that need staff to be in the workplace seven days a week, such as the hospitality sector, such an option doesn’t exist.

We spoke to an employment law expert last year who explained that small businesses don’t need to pay staff members who can’t make it into work because of strike action.

However, it’s important to keep relationships positive, and realise the situation is beyond your team’s control. Docking pay or forcing staff to take annual leave could generate resentment among workers – particularly when real wages have already fallen due to inflation.

Instead, employers could trial subsidised travel methods as an employment perk for staff. This is the best option for those who cannot afford a pay rise, but still want to aid their workforce through the difficult months ahead.

Is the ‘Work Bus’ the new school bus?

Private transfer options are the other option for employers searching for an alternative to the UK’s increasingly unreliable public transport system.

Zeelo is a new platform offering businesses access to a ‘smart bus’ transport solution, and featured in the Startups 100 Index this year. The company’s AI-enabled technology locates the most efficient transport routes, making it much cheaper and quicker than driving a car.

Having originally launched in 2017 to help scores of sports fans travel to matches, Zeelo’s audience has since pivoted. Now, it’s primarily a solution to support shift workers.

“What we noticed at Zeelo is that key work is often a seven-day per week task, and operates on variable shift patterns,” says Zeelo CEO and cofounder, Sam Ryan. “The commute needs to be tailored, comfortable, reliable, and safe. Public transport doesn’t cater for this.”

Ryan reports that Zeelo data shows spikes in requests for services around public sector transport strikes. But an even bigger driver has been the increase in petrol rates, which has almost doubled the cost of running a car in 2023 compared to just two years prior.

“We saw a 425% increase in requests for Zeelo smart transport in March 2022 when fuel prices hit record highs”, says Ryan.

Alongside assisting commuters, the benefits of Zeelo’s ‘work bus’ for companies are obvious. Staff are more punctual, improving productivity and output. They will also save money in a cost of living crisis, improving employee engagement and morale.

What are some other forms of subsidised travel?

1. Cycling

The government’s Cycle to Work scheme enables employers to lease a bicycle to employees for an 18-month period. Employees ‘hire’ the bike through salary sacrifice (avoiding tax and national insurance payments).

According to the Department for Transport, the initiative gives staff members at least 26-40% off the cost of a bike and cycling equipment.

2. Mileage rates

By claiming HMRC mileage rates, firms can reimburse employees for travel costs if they use their vehicles for business during the working day. Crucially, these claims can’t be made for fuel costs associated with the commute to and from work. But, if you’re dealing with staff who would normally rely on public transport to get around as part of their working day duties, and they now have to rely on their own car, then you can reimburse the travel costs.

Car and van drivers can claim back up to the ‘approved amount’ of 45p from HMRC for every mile travelled for business use, up to 10,000 miles.

How can companies encourage greener commuting?

Many employees who can’t work from home – particularly those based in more rural areas – will be forced to revert to using a car, leading to a higher number of vehicles on the road, increased congestion and pollution.

Government data shows that 281 kilo tons of CO2 were emitted by transport in each UK local authority in 2020. That’s equivalent to the amount of carbon absorbed by 11,000 trees.

Zeelo allows users to limit their contribution to transport greenhouse gas emissions. The startup is focused on adopting an all-electric fleet by 2030, meaning its clients can boast of significant CO2 savings in their Environmental Social Good (ESG) reporting.

Zeelo's electric bus fleet, provided by Pelican

“Already 5% of our 2 million rides booked since 2022 are net zero journeys”, says Ryan. “We intend to reach 15% by the end of this year.”

Ryan says that Zeelo wants to remain pragmatic about the size of the role it can play in fighting the climate crisis. But he expresses hope that the company’s approach might “pave the way for other players, and even the public sector, to make the switch to net zero.

“We want to show how easy it is for clients to upgrade their staff to emissions-free vehicles that not only reduce their carbon footprint but will also improve air quality around their sites.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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