Fourteen months on from the start of the first national rail strikes since the 1980s, the disputes between the main rail unions and train operators over pay, jobs and working conditions appear as intractable as ever.
July saw the resumption of industrial action aimed at more than a dozen rail firms, which has continued into August.
The biggest rail union, the RMT, and Aslef, representing train drivers, say many of their members have not had a pay rise for four years. They 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 – who must sign off any deal – 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 say, is to fund it out of efficiency savings,
Caught in the middle: the long-suffering passenger. Since June 2022, 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.
These are the key questions and answers.
Who is taking industrial action, and when?
The biggest rail union, the RMT, says 20,000 of its members were out on strike on Thursday 20, Saturday 22 and Saturday 29 July. Thousands of trains were cancelled each day at the start of the main summer school holidays in England.
No further strikes are currently announced. But with no progress in talks since April, and no future negotiations planned, news of fresh strikes is expected soon from the RMT.
On the most recent strike day, 29 July, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Our members keep voting for more strike action because they haven’t got a settlement we can work with.”
The train drivers’ union, Aslef, is mounting “action short of a strike” in the shape of a series Monday-to-Saturday overtime bans. The latest began on Monday 31 July and runs until Saturday 12 August, with the exception of Sunday 6 August/
Hundreds of trains are likely to be cancelled each day as a result.
Which train operators are involved in the national disputes?
The RMT strikes and Aslef overtime bans are aimed at 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
Most London commuter operators will be hit:
- C2C (not involved in the Aslef action)
- Greater Anglia
- GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)
- South Western Railway
Operators focusing on the Midlands and north of England will be affected:
- Chiltern Railways
- Northern Trains
- West Midlands Railway
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.
Why were the July and August dates chosen?
Like any unions, the RMT and Aslef are seeking the biggest impact – ie to cause as much disruption as they can. With rail commuting sharply down since the Covid pandemic, the target is now leisure passengers.
The RMT union’s national walk-outs targeted what were likely to be three of the busiest days of the month, with many families on the move at the start of school holidays in England, particularly to and from seaside resorts.
The first two dates also fell during the Open golf championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, and the third hit cricket fans hoping to travel to London for the fifth Ashes Test between England and Australia at the Oval.
Aslef’s rolling overtime bans are aimed at leisure travellers in the peak holiday month.
Which trains will run during the Aslef industrial action and any future RMT strikes?
Passengers can expect normal service on:
- Caledonian Sleeper
- Grand Central (except for dozens of cancellations due to fleet issues)
- Heathrow Express
- Hull Trains
- London Overground
- Transport for Wales
Southeastern: The Aslef overtime ban is unlikely to hit services. Any future RMT strike days will see much reduced services. 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.
Southern: A reduced timetable will operate on all days of industrial action, but largely with normal hours. On Saturday 5 August there will be no trains between London and Brighton – the location for a big Pride celebration.
All coastal services, linking Southampton and Portsmouth with Brighton, Eastbourne, Lewes and Hastings, are cancelled on Saturday.
Gatwick Express: Cancelled on all days of industrial action, but alternative Southern services are available (and are much cheaper).
Thameslink: The Thameslink core between London Bridge and St Pancras International will be closed during all industrial action.
During the Aslef overtime ban, an emergency timetable with fewer services will operate.
On any future RMT strike days, a much-reduced service will run between 7am and 7pm.
Southwestern: Reduced services during Aslef overtime ban. On any future RMT strike day, a skeleton network will run linking London Waterloo with Guildford, Southampton, Ascot and Hampton Court.
Great Western Railway (GWR): The Aslef overtime ban “is likely to cause some short-notice alterations or cancellations”. All Night Riviera sleeper services have been cancelled for two weeks, resuming on 13 August.
On any future RMT strike days, a core service is likely between London Paddington and Oxford, Cardiff, Bath, Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth.
CrossCountry: Expect short-notice alterations or cancellations during the Aslef overtime ban.
On any future RMT strike day, 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.
Chiltern: Fewer trains and reduced hours during the Aslef overtime ban, with additional cancellations due to engineering work –including on HS2.
On any future RMT strike days the network will be reduced to a limited service linking London Marylebone with Aylesbury, Banbury and Oxford.
West Midlands Railway: During the Aslef train drivers’ overtime ban, “services will be subject to on the day alterations/cancellations”.
In addition, buses will replace trains on the Leamington Spa-Coventry-Nuneaton link and some Birmingham-Hereford services. Some Birmingham-Shrewsbury services will be cancelled.
Avanti West Coast: The Aslef overtime bans are not expected to have an impact. On any future 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.
Northern: “Disruption is expected between 31 July and 5 August, due to industrial action called by Aslef.”
TransPennine Express: The Aslef overtime ban will mean some services starting later and finishing earlier than usual, with possible night-before or on-the-day cancellations.
On any future 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.
East Midlands Railway: “There will likely be several train cancellations” – that is the prediction for the Aslef overtime bans. On any RMT strike days, the operator says: “Only travel by rail if absolutely necessary and if you do travel, expect severe disruption.”
LNER: During Aslef overtime ban, the state-owned rail firm serving the East Coast main line says: “We expect to run a normal timetable during these times, however, it is possible there will be short-notice alterations and cancellations.”
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.
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: “A number of cancellations” during the Aslef overtime ban.
Why are all trains to Brighton cancelled for Pride?
All trains going anywhere near the Sussex city on the day of the LGBTQ+ event, Saturday 5 August, are cancelled. Normally GTR, the Southern/Thameslink/Gatwick Express franchise, runs dozens of additional trains for the event, with tens of thousands of extra passengers. These involve drivers working overtime, which will not happen this year.
The train operator says: “After exploring all possible options, and following discussions with the police, emergency services and local council, we simply cannot run a safe service with enough capacity for the extraordinary number of passengers that travel to Brighton for Pride.
“We can’t in good faith bring people into Brighton that cannot get home again, potentially leaving thousands of people stranded – safety must come first.”
But Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said: “The fact that GTR Thameslink has chosen not to run services for passengers on Saturday reveals that this is a clear, conscious, and deliberate decision to disrupt – and ruin – Brighton Pride.
“It is outrageous – and utterly ridiculous – to try to blame Aslef for problems which are entirely of this train company’s own making.
“The simple fact is that this company does not employ enough drivers to deliver the services it has promised passengers, businesses, and the Department for Transport it will run. That’s why it is dependent on drivers working overtime.
“The company should do the right thing – give our members, their drivers, the pay rise they deserve – and give the people of Brighton the train service they need. Not just on the Saturday of Brighton Pride. But on every day, of every week, and for the rest of this year.’
Will airport trains run during industrial action?
The Gatwick Express between the Sussex airport and London is suspended during the Aslef action, but Southern trains are available on the London Victoria-Gatwick link.
Note that Brighton will be cut off from Gatwick during the city’s Pride festivities on Saturday 5 August.
Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Southampton, Birmingham and Manchester airports will have some trains during any future RMT walk-outs.
Heathrow airport is unaffected by the national walk-outs: it is served by the Heathrow Express and Elizabeth Line, as well as the London Underground.
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.
Why is Aslef taking industrial action?
Mick Whelan, Aslef’s leader, said: “Once again we find ourselves with no alternative but to take this action. We have continually come to the negotiating table in good faith, seeking to resolve the dispute.
“Sadly, it is clear from the actions of both the train operating companies and the government that they do not want an end to the dispute. Their goals appear to be to continue industrial strife and to do down our industry.
“We don’t want to inconvenience the public. We just want to see our members paid fairly during a cost of living crisis when inflation is running at above 10 per cent, and to not see our terms and conditions taken away.
“It’s time for the government and the companies to think again and look for a resolution.”
Why is the RMT striking?
The RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has described the latest offer from the train operators – represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) – as “substandard”. He said: “This latest phase of action will show the country just how important railway staff are to the running of the rail industry.
”The government continues to shackle the companies and will not allow them to put forward a package that can settle this dispute.
“RMT will continue its industrial campaign until we reach a negotiated settlement on pay, working conditions and job security.
The RMT has staged walk-outs on 33 days in the current wave of strikes, with Aslef stopping work on 13 previous occasions.
What do the train operators say?
A spokesman for the RDG said: “More strikes are totally unnecessary. After a year of industrial action all the RMT has achieved is losing their members more money than they would have received in the pay offers they refused to put to put out to a vote, despite having agreed the terms with the negotiators the room.
“We have now made three offers that the RMT executive have blocked 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.
“Sadly our staff, our customers and the communities across the country which rely on a thriving railway are the ones that are suffering as a result.”
What does the government say?
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “After a year of industrial action, passengers and rail workers alike are growing tired of union bosses playing politics with their lives.
“It’s high time the union leaders realised that strikes no longer have the impact they once did and are simply driving people away from the railway.”
I have a ticket booked for a day hit by industrial action. 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.