More than a year on from the start of the first national rail strike since the 1980s, disputes over wages, jobs and working conditions seem harder than ever to resolve.
The main rail union, RMT and the train drivers union, Aslef, have both announced industrial action in July that will hit more than a dozen UK-based train operators; some of which run services in Wales and Scotland. Transport for Wales and ScotRail are not participating and will run normal services.
Unions say their members have not received a raise in four years and are demanding a decent, non-binding award that takes into account high inflation.
Train operators and ministers – who must sign any deal – say reform is needed following a drop in rail revenue, which they say is 30% lower than before Covid pandemic.
Stuck in the middle: long-suffering passengers. Since June 2022, national rail strikes have caused problems for tens of millions of train passengers. The stops were called frequently, causing major disruption and making advance travel planning difficult.
These are the key questions and answers.
Who is taking industrial action, and when?
The RMT, which began its strike on June 21, 2022, called for three more days of strikes in July: Thursday 20th, Saturday 22nd and Saturday 29th.
The strikes, which the union says will cause 20,000 workers to go on strike, are aimed at train companies contracted by the Department of Transport. These include the leading intercity operators:
- West Bank Avanti
- East Midlands Railway
- Great Western Railway
- Cross Pennine Express
Most London commuter operators will be hit:
- Anglia is bigger
- GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)
- South East
- Southwest Railway
Operators focused on the Midlands and the north of England will be affected:
- Chiltern Railway
- northern train
- West Midlands Train
Aslef banned overtime at the same train operators (except C2C) from July 2 to 6.
Why were those dates chosen?
Like any union, RMT and Aslef are looking for the biggest impact – i.e. causing as much disruption as possible. Aslef’s overtime ban coincides with the first week of the Wimbledon tennis championships in southwest London.
The RMT union is targeting what could be the busiest days of the month. Many families will be moving at the start of school holidays on July 20 and 22; those dates also fall on the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford in Manchester and the Open golf championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
The July 29 strike will affect journeys to and from resorts as well as cricket fans heading to London for the Fifth Ashes Test in the Oval Office.
Nigel Harris, editor of rail magazine, described the announcement as “very disappointing”.
Why are they on strike?
The upcoming industrial action is part of a long and acrimonious dispute over wages and work arrangements that begins in June 2022.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch described the latest offer from train operators – represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) – as “substandard”. “This latest phase of action will show the country how important railway employees are to the functioning of the railway industry,” he said.
“The government continues to bind companies and will not allow them to come up with a package that can resolve this dispute.
“RMT will continue its industrial campaign until we reach a negotiated agreement on wages, working conditions and job security.
RMT has been on strike for 28 days in the current wave of strikes, with Aslef having stopped work 13 times before.
What is the likely impact of an RMT strike?
On each strike day, thousands of trains will be canceled, ruining the travel plans of millions of passengers. Some lines will not have service and where trains are running, they are likely to start later, less often and end earlier than usual.
All operators have the ability to run several trains. LNER will run a regular service on the main East Coast line between London and Edinburgh via Yorkshire and north-east England, while Avanti West Coast will run a basic line, with one train per hour from Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow to London Euston.
The Great Western Railway will run between London Paddington, South Wales (as far as Cardiff Central) and Devon.
Shorter distance services around major cities will likely be hit hard.
Passengers can expect normal service on:
- Caledonian Sleepers
- Big Center
- Express Heathrow
- Hull train
- London on the ground
- Welsh Transport
Will the airport train run?
Gatwick, Luton, Birmingham and Manchester airports will have some trains.
Heathrow Airport is served by the Heathrow Express and Elizabeth Line, as well as the London Underground.
Stansted Airport will likely have trains to and from London Liverpool Street every hour from around 7am until evening.
Eurostar will be affected?
No, but connections to and from the train operator’s main hub at London St Pancras International will be difficult as union members work for all three domestic train operators at the station (East Railway). Midlands, Southeast and Thameslink) serving the station will leave.
Why is Aslef taking industrial action?
Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, said: “Once again, we find ourselves with no choice but to take this action. We have repeatedly come to the negotiating table in good faith, seeking to resolve the dispute.
“Sadly, from the actions of both the ship operator and the government, it is clear that they do not want to end the dispute. Their goal seems to be to continue the industrial strife and bring down our industry.
“We don’t want to inconvenience the public. We just want to see our members get paid fairly during the cost of living crisis when inflation is above 10% and don’t want to see our terms and conditions stripped.
“It’s time for governments and companies to rethink and find a solution.”
What do train operators say?
A spokesman for the RDG said: “More strikes are completely unnecessary. After a year of industrial action, all the RMT has achieved is to cost its members more money than they should have received in the pay offers they refused to put up for a vote, despite having agreed terms with the negotiators in the room.
“We have now made three offers but RMT executives blocked them without a convincing explanation. We are still open to negotiation and we have said many times that we want to raise the wages of our people.
“But until union leadership and executives agree on what they want and join in good faith with the 30% revenue shortfall that the industry is continuing to grapple with post-Covid, it will be difficult to forward.
“Sadly, it is our employees, our customers, and communities across the country that rely on the thriving rail line who are suffering the consequences.”
What does the government say?
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “The decision to strike by RMT leadership targeting two iconic international sporting events, as children and families begin their summer holidays, will disrupt plans of people all over the country.
“After a year of industrial activity, rail passengers and workers alike are growing weary of union bosses playing politics with their lives.
“It’s time for union leaders to realize that strikes aren’t as impactful as they used to be and are simply keeping people off the rails.”
Can strikes be cancelled?
It is the animosity between the parties that seems most unlikely.
I booked a ticket for one of the strike days. What can I do?
Passengers who purchase tickets in advance, anytime tickets or off-peak tickets can get a refund at no cost if the train on which the ticket has been booked is cancelled, delayed or rescheduled.
Train operators have the ability to provide the flexibility to travel for days without a strike.
Non-traveling seasonal ticket holders can claim for strike days through Delayed Payment.
What are the alternatives?
As always, the long-haul bus operators – National Express, Megabus and Flixbus – will continue to operate, although seats are becoming scarce and fares are rising.
What will be the impact of Aslef’s overtime ban?
It will vary from one railway company to another. The number of train cancellations will reflect depending on the specific operator’s overtime hours and also the severity of illness during the day.