The first national rail strikes since the 1980s began in June 2022. The RMT and Aslef trades unions are involved in parallel disputes with the leading English train operators over pay, jobs and working conditions. The government – which contracts the rail firms to run trains – will sign off the final settlement. But the unions and management appear as far apart as ever.
Both unions are demanding no-strings increases that take into account the high level of inflation. The unions say they are prepared to discuss reforms, but these must be negotiated separately. They will expect any changes to be accompanied by commensurate pay boosts.
Train operators and ministers insist modernisation is essential following the collapse of rail revenue. Much of the “bedrock” of season ticket sales has vanished since the Covid pandemic. The only way to award even a modest increase, the employers maintain, is to fund it out of efficiency savings.
The RMT has so far staged walk-outs on 33 days in the current wave of national strikes, with Aslef stopping work on 11 previous occasions.
Caught in the middle: the long-suffering passenger. For 14 months, national rail strikes and other forms of industrial action have scuppered the travel plans of tens of millions of train passengers. Stoppages have been called frequently, causing massive disruption and making advance travel planning difficult.
The biggest rail union, the RMT, has called walk-outs in late August and early September, while Aslef, representing train drivers, has a combination strike and overtime ban.
These are the key questions and answers.
Who is taking industrial action, and when?
The biggest rail union, the RMT, says 20,000 RMT members across 14 train operators will walk out on the two key Saturdays at the end of the summer holidays:
The train drivers’ union, Aslef, will stage a one-day strike on Friday 1 September and mount an overtime ban the following day.
Why have these dates been chosen?
As with any industrial action, strikers seek to cause as much disruption as they can. With rail commuting sharply down since the Covid pandemic, leisure passengers now comprise the main target.
The first RMT strike, on Saturday 26 August, is designed to wreck the travel plans of millions of passengers, particularly families returning from holidays. In addition it will hit music fans attending festivals in Leeds and Reading Festival over the late August bank holiday, and rugby supporters attending the England v Fiji match at Twickenham.
The second RMT strike, on Saturday 2 September, will also target families – it is likely to be an extremely busy day for travellers arriving back from overseas holidays by air, many of whom would normally travel home by rail
Both RMT stoppages are intended to scupper travel plans for many football fans on the main day for fixtures.
The Aslef walk-out on Friday 1 September was announced after the RMT strike was called. The aim is to deepen the disruption to passengers. Typically with a one-day strike, travellers will switch to adjacent days; with two days in which tens of thousands of trains are cancelled, the pressure on Thursday 31 August and Sunday 3 September will be even more intense.
The train drivers’ action will also hit weekenders attending a range of smaller end-of-summer events, including the British Country Music Festival in Blackpool, the Sundown Festival in Norfolk and the Moseley Folk Festival in Birmingham.
Overseas visitors arriving at English ports and airports for a weekend or longer stay will also be affected.
Which train operators are involved in the national disputes?
The RMT strikes and Aslef overtime bans involve 14 rail firms in England contracted by the Department for Transport. They include the leading intercity operators:
- Avanti West Coast
- East Midlands Railway
- Great Western Railway
- TransPennine Express
London commuter operators:
- Greater Anglia
- GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)
- South Western Railway (including the Island Line on the Isle of Wight)
Operators focusing on the Midlands and north of England:
- Chiltern Railways
- Northern Trains
- West Midlands Railway
Which trains will run during the strikes?
The impact is difficult to predict accurately, especially on Saturday 2 September when the Aslef overtime ban will exacerbate the effects of the RMT walk-out.
Aslef says of its 1 September walk-out: “The strike will force companies to cancel all services in this country.”
That is not true, but the stoppage will have more impact than the two RMT strikes.
Passengers can expect normal service on:
- Caledonian Sleeper
- Grand Central
- Heathrow Express
- Hull Trains
- London Overground
- Transport for Wales
Many of the trains that these operators are likely to be more punctual than normal, because so many other services will be axed – reducing the prospect of congestion.
They may, however, be more crowded on routes that duplicate strike-hit lines. Transport for Wales services between Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, and between Crewe and Manchester, could be busier than normal.
The three “open access” operators on the East Coast main line – Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo – are also likely to be busy.
On affected train operators, these are the likely service levels. Please check with operators shortly before travel for the latest picture:
Southeastern: On RMT strike days, most trains will be cancelled. Links wil run from London Victoria to Bromley South, London Bridge to Dartford and Sevenoaks and London St Pancras International to Ashford International, Canterbury and Ramsgate, with reduced service hours.
Aslef strike day: No services.
Southern: A much-reduced timetable will operate on RMT strike days. Some statons will not be served. No trains will run on the Aslef strike day.
Gatwick Express: Cancelled on all days of industrial action, but alternative Southern services between London and the airport are available (and much cheaper).
Thameslink: On RMT strike days, the central London core between London Bridge and St Pancras International will be closed during all industrial action. On the rest of the network, a much-reduced service will run between 7am and 7pm.
No trains will run on the Aslef strike day.
Southwestern: On all strike days, a skeleton network will link London Waterloo with Guildford, Southampton, Ascot and Hampton Court.
Great Western Railway (GWR): A core service is likely between London Paddington and Oxford, Cardiff, Bath, Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth on all strike days – though Devon services may be cancelled on the Aslef strike day (1 September).
CrossCountry: On RMT strike days, a reduced network with nothing north of Edinburgh or west of Plymouth is likely. Cardiff to Nottingham trains will not run, and the usual link from Birmingham to Stansted Airport will terminate at Peterborough.
Aslef strike day: Few or no services.
Chiltern: The network will be reduced to a limited service linking London Marylebone with Aylesbury, Banbury and Oxford on all strike days.
West Midlands Railway: Most services are likely to be cancelled on all strike days.
Avanti West Coast: On RMT strike days, the basic pattern to and from London Euston will be one train each hour to/from:
- Liverpool (via Birmingham)
- Preston, with a limited service onwards to Glasgow.
Aslef strike day: No services.
Northern: Most trains are likely to be cancelled on all strike days.
TransPennine Express: On RMT strike days, a very limited number of trains will run on the Manchester Piccadilly-Leeds-York-Scarborough route; between Preston and Manchester Airport; and between Sheffield and Cleethorpes. On the Aslef strike day, there may be no services.
East Midlands Railway: The operator says: “Only travel by rail if absolutely necessary and if you do travel, expect severe disruption.” But intercity services and local links are likely to be operated on the RMT strike day, with a skeleton schedule on the Aslef strike day.
LNER: On RMT strike days, LNER traditionally runs regular services on the London-York-Newcastle-Edinburgh route, with first departures around 7am and final arrivals around 10pm. London-Leeds services will run approximately 7am-6pm.
Aslef strike day: reduced service but regular trains on core routes.
Great Northern: “An amended timetable with fewer services will run. Services will be busier than usual, especially in peak hours. It’s likely you will need to queue and you may not be able to board your chosen service. You should allow extra time for your journey.”
Greater Anglia: On RMT strikes, a skeleton service on the London Liverpool Street-Colchester-Ipswich-Norwich lines, as well as links to and from Stansted airport is likely.
On the Aslef strike day, there may be no services.
What is happening about the London Underground?
The Underground, the London Overground and the Elizabeth Line are unaffected by the planned industrial action. But some routes that offer alternatives to rail services hit by industrial action, such as in south London, may be busier than normal.
Will Eurostar be affected?
No, but connections to and from the train operator’s main hub at London St Pancras International may be difficult because of industrial action at all three domestic train operators at the station (East Midlands Railway, Southeastern and Thameslink) serving the station.
What does the RMT say?
Announcing the strikes on 26 August and 2 September, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “The mood among our members remains solid and determined in our national dispute over pay job security and working conditions.”
“We have had to call further strike action as we have received no improved or revised offer from the Rail Delivery Group.
“The reason for this is the government has not allowed them a fresh mandate on which discussions could be held.
“Our members and our union will continue fighting until we can reach a negotiated and just settlement.”
Why is Aslef calling its members out on strike?
Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, said: “We don’t want to take this action but the train companies, and the government which stands behind them, have forced us into this place because they refuse to sit down and talk to us and have not made a fair and sensible pay offer to train drivers who have not had one for four years – since 2019 – while prices have soared in that time by more than 12 per cent.
“The government appears happy to let passengers – and businesses – suffer in the mistaken belief that they can bully us into submission. They don’t care about passengers – or Britain’s railway – but they will not break us.
“We haven’t heard a word from the employers – we haven’t had a meeting, a phone call, a text message, or an email – since Wednesday 26 April, and we haven’t had any contact with the government since Friday 6 January. This shows how the contempt in which the companies, and the government, hold passengers and staff and public transport in Britain.
“They are happy to let this drift on and on. But we are determined to get a fair pay rise for men and women who haven’t had one for four years while inflation has reached double figures. Our members, perfectly reasonably, want to be able to buy now what they could buy back in 2019.”
What do the train operators say?
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, said of the RMT strikes: “With further strike action the RMT are once again targeting customers looking to enjoy various sporting events, festivals, and the end of the summer holidays, disrupting their plans and forcing more cars onto the road.”
“We have now made three offers, the latest of which would have given staff pay rises of up to 13 per cent as well as job security guarantees and the RMT executive have blocked this without a convincing explanation.
“We remain open to talks and we have said repeatedly that we want to give our people a pay rise, but until the union leadership and executive is united in what it wants and engages in good faith with the 30 per cent shortfall in revenue the industry is continuing to grapple with post Covid, it is difficult to move forward.
“Unfortunately, the repercussion of this impasse affects our staff, customers, and the communities across the country that rely on the railway.”
Of the Aslef strikes, the spokesperson said: “The union leadership has its head in the sand and refuses to put our fair and reasonable offer to their members. The offer would increase the average driver base salary for a foour-day week without overtime from £60,000 to nearly £65,000 by the end of 2023.
“We want to give our staff a pay increase, but it has always been linked to implementing necessary, sensible reforms that would enhance services for our customers.
“We urge the Aslefleadership to acknowledge the substantial financial challenges facing the rail industry and work with us to achieve a more dependable and robust railway system for the future.”
What does the government say?
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “The government has facilitated fair and reasonable pay offers. However, union bosses are opting to prolong this dispute by blocking their members from having a vote on these offers – we continue to urge that members are given their say, and disruption is brought to an end.”
I have a ticket booked for a day hit by strikes. What can I do?
Passengers with Advance, Anytime or Off-Peak tickets can have their ticket refunded with no fee if the train that the ticket is booked for is cancelled, delayed or rescheduled.
Train operators are likely to offer flexibility to travel on a wide range of non-strike days.
Passengers with season tickets who do not travel can claim compensation for the strike dates through Delay Repay.
What are the alternatives?
As always, long-distance coach operators – National Express, Megabus and Flixbus – will keep running, though seats are becoming scarce and fares are rising.
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