Thirteen months on from the start of the first national rail strikes since the 1980s, the disputes over pay, jobs and working conditions appear as intractable as ever. July has seen the resumption of industrial action aimed at more than a dozen train operators by both main rail unions, which will continue 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 are prepared to discuss reforms, but these must be negotiated separately with commensurate boosts to pay.
Train operators and ministers – who must sign off any deal – insist modernisation is essential following the collapse of rail revenue, in particular the loss of much of the “bedrock” of season ticket sales since the Covid pandemic.
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.
Transport for Wales and ScotRail are not involved and will run normal services – but as some of the affected operators usually run trains in Wales and Scotland, services on strike days may be more crowded than normal.
These are the key questions and answers.
Who is taking industrial action, and when?
The biggest rail union, the RMT, called` 20,000 of its members out on strike on Thursday 20, Saturday 22 with the next strike day being Saturday 29 July. The late July walk-outs are causing thousands of cancellations each day at the start of the main summer school holidays in England.
The train drivers’ union, Aslef, is mounting “action short of a strike” in the shape of Monday-to-Saturday overtime bans. The next starts on Monday 31 July until Saturday 5 August.
Hundreds of trains are likely to be cancelled each day as a result.
A London Underground strike, also involving members of the RMT, was called off at 36 hours’ notice after progress in talks.
Which train operators are involved in the national disputes?
The RMT strikes and Aslef overtime bans are aimed at rail firms 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?
London Overground and the Elizabeth Line are unaffected by the planned industrial action. But routes that offer alternatives to strike-hit routes, such as Stratford, Walthamstow Central and Ealing Broadway to central London, are likely to be especially busy during the walk-outs by RMT members working for train operators and the London Underground,
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 are targeting what are 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.
The second Aslef overtime ban affected passengers hoping to travel to the first four days of the fourth Ashes Test between England and Australia.
Cricket fans hoping to travel to and within London for the fifth Ashes Test at the Oval, which will be played 27-31 July, face disruption from both components of industrial action.
Which trains will run during the Aslef and RMT industrial action?
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: RMT strike days will see much reduced services, with links only 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.
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.
On RMT strike days, a much-reduced service will run between 7am and 7pm.
During the Aslef overtime ban, an emergency timetable with fewer services will operate.
Southwestern: Reduced services during Aslef overtime ban, skeleton network on RMT strike days: London Waterloo to Guildford, Southampton, Ascot and Hampton Court. All other lines closed.
Great Western Railway (GWR): The Aslef overtime ban “is likely to cause some short-notice alterations or cancellations”.
On the RMT strike days, “many parts of the GWR network will have no service at all”.
GWR says: “Services will start later, finish much earlier and only operate for a limited period during the day.”
But a bigger network than on previous days will operate, with trains on the following intercity routes to and from London Paddington:
- Cardiff and Swansea
- Bath and Bristol Temple Meads
- Exeter and Plymouth
- Swindon and Cheltenham Spa
In addition some regional services will run, including Cardiff to Westbury via Bath and Bristol, and Bristol to Plymouth.
CrossCountry: A reduced network with nothing north of Edinburgh or west of Plymouth during the RMT strikes. 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. On RMT strike days the network will be reduced to a limited service linking London Marylebone with Aylesbury, Banbury and Oxford.
West Midlands Railway: On RMT strike days the train operator says: “We will provide a limited service using management volunteers and staff who are not partaking in strike action.
“We will prioritise the delivery of a very limited service on our mainline routes however, our advice to customers is to only travel if your journey is essential and you have no other means of transport available.”
During the Aslef overtime ban, services are reduced and some links are replaced by buses.
Avanti West Coast: The Aslef overtime ban is not expected to have an impact. But on RMT strike days the picture is complicated by large-scale engineering work. 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.
On 29 July there will be more trains with Birmingham and Liverpool each getting a dedicated service.
North Wales, Shrewsbury, Blackpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Macclesfield and Edinburgh will have no Avanti West Coast services.
“The days after industrial action are also expected to be affected – particularly due to the reduced timetable for engineering work, but trains may also start later in the morning than usual following the strike,” Avanti West Coast says.
Northern: “There will be very limited Northern services on Thursday 20, Saturday 22 and Saturday 29 July.”
TransPennine Express: “We expect some services to start later and finish earlier than usual, and some journeys may be altered late or on the day of travel” – that is the prediction for the Aslef overtime ban.
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.
East Midlands Railway: A number of train cancellations are predicted during the Aslef overtime ban. On RMT strike days, the operator says: “Only travel by rail if absolutely necessary and if you do travel, expect severe disruption.” But a significant service will operate hourly on these routes:
- London St Pancras to/from Nottingham, Sheffield and Corby.
- Derby and Nottingham
- Derby and Matlock
- Sheffield and Nottingham
- Leicester and Lincoln
- Mansfield Woodhouse and Nottingham
- Nottingham and Skegness (every two hours)
LNER: During Aslef overtime ban, “it is possible there will be short-notice alterations and cancellations”.
On RMT strike days, a regular service will run on the London-York-Newcastle-Edinburgh line, with first departures around 7am and final arrivals around 10pm. London-Leeds services will run approximately 7am-6pm.
Trains could be unexpectedly full as Grand Central – uninvolved in the dispute – has cancelled dozens of trains due to fleet issues.
Great Northern: Trains will run regularly from London Kings Cross to Cambridge and Kings Lynn.
Peterborough and Letchworth get peak hour services only.
“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.
“Avoid travelling with Greater Anglia on strike days,” the company says. But main line services will operate.
Stansted Airport is likely to have trains to and from London Liverpool Street every hour from around 7am until mid-evening.
Will airport trains run?
The Gatwick Express between the Sussex airport and London is suspended, but Southern trains are available on the London Victoria-Gatwick link
Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Southampton, Birmingham and Manchester airports will have some trains during the 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. But during the RMT Tube strike against Transport for London, the airport’s Tube link on the Piccadilly Line is likely to be suspended – in common with almost all other Underground services
Will Eurostar be affected?
No, but connections to and from the train operator’s main hub at London St Pancras International will be difficult because union members working for all three domestic train operators at the station (East Midlands Railway, Southeastern and Thameslink) serving the station will walk out.
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 30 days in the current wave of strikes, with Aslef stopping work on 13 previous occasions.
Why is Aslef taking industrial action?
Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, 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.”
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: “The RMT leadership’s decision to call strikes targeting two iconic international sporting events, as children and families begin their summer holidays, will disrupt people’s plans across the country.
“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 one of the RMT national strike days. 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.