Train strikes this week: When is the train drivers’ walk-out and how will it impact passengers?

National rail strikes by train drivers have entered their 22nd month with a series of “rolling” walk-outs, one region at a time, planned for early April.

Members of the Aslef union plan to halt thousands of trains on 5, 6 and 8 April. The aim is to disrupt services on the 14 rail firms in England that are controlled by the UK government and represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). Rolling strikes cause maximum disruption for minimum loss of pay.

In addition, five days of overtime bans will cause further cancellations.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, during a previous strike

(PA)

The previous national industrial action by train drivers, comprising an overtime ban and rolling regional walk-outs, hit for nine days from 29 January to 6 February.

Industrial action by Aslef in a dispute over pay and working arrangements began in July 2022. The union is demanding a no-strings pay award, but rail firms – directed by ministers – say any increase is contingent on radical reforms to working practices in order to reduce public subsidies.

During the dispute, hundreds of millions of journeys have been cancelled. Billions of pounds have been lost to the UK economy – particularly hospitality businesses – and taxpayers are pumping cash into an increasingly decrepit and unreliable railway to the tune of £90 per second on top of the normal subsidy.

The quarrel has become increasingly bitter, with no sign of any progress towards a settlement.

In addition to the latest walk-outs by rail workers, commuters in the capital will be hit by two days of strikes by Aslef members who drive trains for the London Underground.

One aim of the next industrial action is to bring the capital to a near-standstill on Monday 8 April. The vast majority of Tube and commuter trains will be cancelled.

Caught in the middle of a seemingly intractable dispute: the passenger. In a snap social media poll for The Independent that garnered 2,142 responses, one in three passengers say they will permanently travel less after the industrial action finally ends.

These are the key questions and answers.

Which rail firms are involved?

Aslef is in dispute with the 14 train operators that are contracted by the UK government to provide rail services. They are:

Intercity operators:

Avanti West Coast

CrossCountry

East Midlands Railway

Great Western Railway (GWR)

LNER

TransPennine Express

Southeast England commuter operators:

C2C

Greater Anglia

GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)

Southeastern

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 (including London Northwestern Railway)

When are the train drivers walking out?

Drivers belonging to the Aslef union will strike in the following pattern:

Friday 5 April

Avanti West Coast, East Midlands Railway, West Midlands Railway and CrossCountry. The aim is to cause maximum disruption on key intercity lines as well as Midland commuter services.

Saturday 6 April

Chiltern, GWR, LNER, Northern and TransPennine Trains. This strike is designed to hit rail passengers in the north and west of England, as well as the day’s football programme. In the Premier League, it will hit Newcastle fans travelling to Fulham in London.

Monday 8 April

C2C, Greater Anglia, Great Northern, Thameslink, Southeastern, Southern, Gatwick Express, South Western Railway. This will hit London particularly hard, with almost all Tube services brought to a halt by the London Underground walkout by Aslef members.

What are the predicted effects at each operator?

The Night Riviera sleeper train and the Gatwick Express will be cancelled throughout the industrial action period.

For other operators, these are the likely service patterns .

Friday 5 April

The four train operators – Avanti West Coast, East Midlands Railway, West Midlands Railway and CrossCountry – have cancelled all services on the day.

“Avanti West Coast services on the days either side of the strike will also be affected,” the West Coast main line operator says.

Chiltern Railways warns people who are thinking of switching to its London-Birmingham service: “Essential travel only, due to strike action on other operators.”

Saturday 6 April

Chiltern, Northern and TransPennine Trains have cancelled all services.

LNER will run a skeleton service on core lines between around 7am and 7pm. Its main Edinburgh-Newcastle-York-London line will have at least one train an hour, with some additional trains on the southern part of the network.

GWR will run no long-distance trains, but will connect Reading with Oxford and Basingstoke, as well as a link from Bristol to Cardiff and some branch routes in Devon and Cornwall.

CrossCountry is not on strike but warns its services are expected to be extremely busy, and urges prospective passengers: “Please only travel if essential.”

Sunday 7 April

Although no industrial action is taking place, planned Network Rail engineering projects will hamper many passengers hoping to travel on the Sunday to dodge the strikes.

Avanti West Coast says: “No trains will serve Penrith, Carlisle, Lockerbie, Motherwell, Glasgow Central, Haymarket or Edinburgh, and only a limited number of services will serve Lancaster and Oxenholme. All remaining trains will start / terminate at Preston.”

Northern will run rail replacement buses between Halifax and Huddersfield.

The CrossCountry line between Derby and Burton-on-Trent is closed all weekend, with rail replacement buses and train diversions.

Monday 8 April

Greater Anglia will run to and from London Liverpool Street to Stansted airport, Southend, Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich.

Southern will run a shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport.

Thameslink will run a shuttle service between London St Pancras and Luton (town and airport stations).

Great Northern will run a shuttle service between London King’s Cross and Cambridge.

South Western Railway will run between London Waterloo, Woking and Guildford, with some other suburban services likely.

Southeastern is urging passengers not to travel, but will run services between London St Pancras and Ashford on the high-speed line; Charing Cross and Orpington; and London Bridge and Dartford.

C2C has cancelled all services.

What about the overtime ban?

Members will also refuse to work their rest days from Thursday 4 to Saturday 6 April and from Monday 8 to Tuesday 9 April. As many rail firms depend on drivers working overtime, hundreds – possibly thousands – of trains will be cancelled.

Avanti West Coast and West Midlands Railway have already said a reduced timetable will run on each day of the strike ban.

GWR says the overtime ban “is likely to cause some short-notice alterations and cancellations, especially at weekends or late at night”.

Which rail firms are not involved?

Some publicly funded train operators will run normally: ScotRail, Transport for Wales, Transport for London (including the Elizabeth line) and Merseyrail.

“Open-access” operators on the East Coast main line – Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo – are unaffected. But many of their services will be crowded on days of industrial action. They duplicate journeys of strike-hit companies, including LNER, TransPennine Express, CrossCountry and Northern.

What is at stake in the dispute?

The train drivers demand a pay rise to reflect high levels of inflation since they last won a pay award; Aslef says some members have not had an increase for five years.

But the government insists that even a modest pay increase is contingent on radical changes to long-standing working arrangements in order to reduce costs – and the huge subsidies the railway is currently receiving from the taxpayer.

Since the pandemic, travel patterns have changed. Ticket revenue is about one-fifth down on pre-Covid levels. As taxpayers will foot the eventual bill for the train drivers’ pay rise, the Treasury as well as the Department for Transport will sign off any deal.

Ministers believe train drivers’ terms and conditions are part of the problem. To keep costs down, they must accept changes to how they work, such as making Sunday part of the working week everywhere.

On 27 April 2023 the Rail Delivery Group offered a pay increase of 4 plus 4 per cent over two years covering the 2022 and 2023 pay awards – subject to a host of changes on terms and conditions, covering a wide range of issues including driver training, Sunday working, sick pay and new technology.

The union say this is completely unacceptable. The train drivers will negotiate on changes, but only after they get a decent no-strings pay offer on top of their current pay.

They believe the money will be found to meet their demands, as it always has been in the past. Aslef has also always “sold” reforms to working arrangements for an extra few per cent on their pay and does intend to change that process.

Meanwhile, the corrosion in confidence among travellers continues, with no rail passenger able to plan journeys more than two weeks ahead – that being the minimum notice the union must give for industrial action.

What does the union say?

The general secretary of Aslef, Mick Whelan, said: “Our members voted overwhelmingly – yet again – for strike action. Those votes show – yet again – a clear rejection by train drivers of the ridiculous offer put to us in April last year by the Rail Delivery Group which knew that offer would be rejected because a land grab for all the terms and conditions we have negotiated over the years would never be accepted by our members.

“Since then train drivers have voted, time and again, to take action in pursuit of a pay rise. That’s why Mark Harper, the transport secretary, is being disingenuous when he says that offer should have been put to members. Drivers wouldn’t vote for industrial action, again and again and again, if they thought that was a good offer. They don’t. That offer was dead in the water in April last year – and Mr Harper knows that.

“We asked Mr Harper, or his deputy, the rail minister Huw Merriman, to come and meet us. We asked the RDG and the TOCs to come and talk to us. We said, ‘Let’s sit around the table and negotiate.’ Because you say you don’t want any more industrial action, and we don’t want to disrupt the rail network. But the Tories and the TOCs [train operating companies] have given us no choice.

“We have given the government every opportunity to come to the table but it is now clear they do not want to resolve this dispute. They are happy for it go on and on. Because we are not going to give up.

“Many members have now not had a single penny increase in pay for half a decade.”

What do the employers and government say?

Earlier this year, rail minister Huw Merriman told The Independent: “We believe a fair and reasonable offer is there on the table for Aslef if they put it to their members. These are train drivers that are paid an average £60,000 for a 35-hour, four-day week. The pay deal would take them up to £65,000.”

A spokesperson for Rail Delivery Group, representing the train operators, said: “Nobody wins when industrial action impacts people’s lives and livelihoods, and we will work hard to minimise any disruption to our passengers.

“We want to resolve this dispute, but the Aslef leadership need to recognise that hard-pressed taxpayers are continuing to contribute an extra £54 million a week just to keep services running post-Covid.

“We continue to seek an agreement with the Aslef leadership and remain open to talks to find a solution to this dispute.”

What does the Labour Party say?

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said: “It is a staggering dereliction of duty that the transport secretary hasn’t got around the table with the unions to try to resolve it since the Christmas before last.

“Labour will take an unashamedly different approach to the Tories, and will work with both sides to reach a deal in the interests of passengers and workers. If the transport secretary took this sensible approach then perhaps we wouldn’t still be having strikes on our railways.”

How much has all the disruption cost?

According to the RDG, industrial action from June 2022 up until mid-January 2024 cost the rail sector around £775m in lost revenue. That does not include the impact of the most recent strikes and overtime bans, which probably add a further £100m to the losses.

UKHospitality estimates the lost business for places to eat, drink and stay amounts to almost £5 billion. Kate Nicholls, the organisation’s chief executive, says: “Ongoing strike action hurts businesses, prevents people from getting to work and significantly erodes confidence in the rail network.”

In addition, there is an unknowable loss of revenue from passengers who have adjusted their lifestyles or found alternative forms of transport; businesses that have stopped making trips and are using online communication instead; and people trimming back on travel because of the lack of certainty.

What about the new minimum service levels law?

Legislation now allows the transport secretary to stipulate minimum service levels (MSLs) on strike days amounting to 40 per cent of the normal service. The government says the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 aims “to ensure that the public can continue to access services that they rely on, during strike action”.

No train operator is seeking to impose the new law on the train drivers’ union. LNER said it might do so earlier this year, and opened consultations. Aslef immediately called a separate five-day strike on LNER alone. Then the train operator said it would not require drivers to work, and the strike was called off.

The Transport Select Committee has previously warned of potential unintended consequences of the legislation. The Conservative chair, Iain Stewart, said: “There is a risk of MSLs worsening worker-employer relations and that, as a result, MSLs could end up making services less reliable.”

The minimum service level rules do not apply to union bans on non-contractual rest-day working – so there would be no benefit in imposing the law when an overtime ban is in force.

What is the Tube dispute about?

Train drivers members of Aslef working for the London Underground will walk out on Monday 8 April and Saturday 4 May, bringing almost the entire Tube network to a standstill.

Finn Brennan, Aslef’s full-time organiser for the Tube, blamed the employer for wanting to impose changes to working arrangements, saying: “They want drivers to work longer shifts, spending up to 25 per cent more time in the cab, and to remove all current working agreements in the name of ‘flexibility and efficiency’.”

A Transport for London spokesperson said: “We have been in long-term discussions with our trade union colleagues on how to modernise procedures and processes on London Underground to improve the experience both for staff and customers.

“We have no plans to impose these changes and have committed to no one losing their job as part of these changes, and we have engaged with our unions to demonstrate that no change will be made that compromises our steadfast commitment to safety on the Tube network.

“We urge Aslef to continue discussions with us so that disruption for Londoners can be averted.”

Anything else on the strike agenda?

Members of the main rail union, the RMT, who work for CrossCountry are striking on Saturday 13 April in a dispute over recognition.

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