Rail passengers in Britain are enduring the longest and most damaging series of strikes since the 1980s.
Industrial action by rail workers has been taking place since June and seems to be intensifying, with October the hardest-hit month so far and industrial action continuing into November.
Great Britain-wide rail strikes or more localised stoppages took place almost every day during the first 10 days of October, with millions of potential journeys disrupted; and the industrial action continues for a number of train operators.
The strife is top of the agenda for the new transport secretary, with three fresh walk-outs planned by RMT members across England, Wales and Scotland for early November. The rail employers – represented by Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group – says: “Passengers should expect a week-long disruption due to further industrial action.”
What is the rail dispute about?
There are actually dozens of individual disputes involving many employers:
- Network Rail – the infrastructure provider, running the tracks, signalling and some large stations
- More than a dozen train operators, who are contracted by the Department for Transport (DfT) to run a specified schedule of services.
Four unions are involved:
- RMT, the main rail union
- Aslef, representing train drivers
- Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), the union for white-collar staff in the transport industry
- Unite, representing some grades in some train operators
But key elements are common to all the disputes:
- Pay, which the unions say should take into account the current high inflation
- Jobs, and in particular the prospect of compulsory redundancies
- Working conditions – with the unions determined to extract a premium from any productivity improvements
Another element has now crept in: an accusation of duplicity against the employers.
The RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, said the behaviour of Network Rail bosses triggered the latest strike call: “On the one hand they were telling our negotiators that they were prepared to do a deal, while planning to torpedo negotiations by imposing unacceptable changes to our members terms and conditions.
“Our members are livid with these duplicitous tactics, and they will now respond in kind with sustained strike action.”
Network Rail flatly rejects these assertions and describes the forthcoming strikes as causing “unnecessary and entirely avoidable disruption for passengers”.
When are the next national strike days?
The RMT has called a series of coordinated strikes.
Members working for Network Rail on Saturday 5, Monday 7 and Wednesday 9 November have been instructed to walk out.
Staff employed by 14 train operating companies will also be stopping work on 5 November.
The six long-distance rail firms are:
- Avanti West Coast,
- East Midlands Railway
- Great Western Railway
- Transpennine Express
Eight shorter-distance operators are also affected:
- Chiltern Railways
- Greater Anglia
- GTR (including Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express)
- South Western Railway
- West Midlands Trains
Additional strikes will take place on Thursday 10 November on the London Underground and Overground.
Wasn’t there a walk-out scheduled for Thursday 3 November?
Yes, but this has now been called off and another strike date, Wednesday 9 November, has been added.
The RMT said: “Having been made aware of Royal British Legion London Poppy day on November 3rd, RMT NEC [National Executive Committee] has decided to re-arrange strike action for the 9th.”
Will any trains run?
Yes. The rail employers say: “Thousands of specially trained and fully qualified back-up staff will step in during the walkouts to keep vital services running for those who need them.”
The maximum strike effort is on the first strike day , Saturday 5 November, when around one in five trains is likely to run despite the stoppage by staff working for the train operators as well as Network Rail.
LNER, which runs trains on the East Coast main line between Scotland, north-east England, Yorkshire and London, says “due to a combination of industrial action and engineering work” there will be no services travelling further south than Doncaster.
On Monday 7 and Wednesday 9 November, when only Network Rail staff are striking, a higher percentage may operate.
But large swathes of Great Britain with no rail services at all because of the absence of Network Rail signallers.
Trains that do run will start later and finish much earlier than usual, between 7.30am and 6.30pm.
The impact will extend into the day following each national strike, with all six days from 5 to 10 November inclusive affected.
Early trains the day after each strike will be cancelled, with around 75 per cent of services likely to run on Sunday 6 , Tuesday 8 and Thursday 10 November.
South Western Railway says: “Only travel if absolutely necessary from Saturday 5 to Thursday 10 November.”
Trains that do run are likely to be busy, because many people who had hoped to travel on strike-hit days will be seeking to rearrange their travel.
Industrial action in separate disputes involving members working for London Underground and London Overground will affect people travelling in the capital on 10 November.
Will Eurostar be affected?
Yes. Dozens of international trains linking London with Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam have been cancelled, from as early as Thursday evening, 3 November, and continuing through to the following Thursday, 10 November. Some trains are being re-timed to fit in with Network Rail signalling hours.
Any other disruption?
Plenty. Train managers on Avanti West Coast who are members of the RMT will walk out on Sunday 6 November in a row over the imposition of rosters.
The train firm says: “Customers should expect our timetable and operating hours to be reduced significantly, and note that services that do run are expected to be busy.”
Further strikes by the drivers’ union, Aslef, are likely. Mick Whelan, the general secretary, said: “The morally corrupt train companies signed contracts with the government to say they would not offer more than 2 per cent, knowing we have free collective bargaining, and do not work for the government.
“The train companies have been determined to force our hand. They are telling train drivers to take a real terms pay cut.”
In addition, morale across the rail industry is low, with several train operators reporting higher-than-normal levels of staff sickness.
TransPennine Express, for example, is running a reduced timetable to 10 December at the earliest, with dozens of additional short-notice cancellations.
In addition, members of the TSSA are maintaining an overtime ban at TransPennine Express and Great Western Railway.
What’s happening in Scotland?
Staff at ScotRail are currently refusing overtime as part of a dispute over pay. ScotRail says: “The action short of a strike will see some daily cancellations, as the operation of ScotRail services requires rest day working and overtime as recruitment continues.
“We’re doing everything we can to minimise disruption, and to keep customers updated on which services are impacted.
“The best thing to do is to check your journey in the morning before you travel.”
What do the employers say?
Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, says: “A fair and affordable two-year 8 per cent deal, with heavily discounted travel and an improved offer of job security to January 2025, remains on the table.
“Our team have had extensive conversations with RMT representatives around the terms of a deal. Unfortunately, the unions seem to believe the taxpayer should fund bigger pay rises and are more intent on more damaging strikes than working with us to compromise and agree a deal.
“These strikes undermine the railway’s recovery from the pandemic and drive passengers away at a time when everyone involved in the railway should be focused on attracting more passenger.”
Steve Montgomery, chair of the Rail Delivery Group, says: “It is particularly disheartening that next weekend’s strike will hit the plans of thousands of rugby fans who are planning to travel to Cardiff for Wales v New Zealand as well as the other sports fixtures happening across the country.
“Further strikes mean that more of our people lose pay and there is less money to fund a pay rise. We urge the unions to recognise that the railway industry is facing very real financial challenge, and work with us towards a fair deal that offers a pay rise and includes the long-overdue changes to the industry so that our services are more reliable, more affordable and inspire more passengers back on board.”
Network Rail is a subsidiary of the DfT, and train operators are contracted by the department to run services. So ultimately ministers call the shots on pay and conditions.
I have a ticket booked for a strike day. What are my options?
The Rail Delivery Group says: ““Passengers with advance, off-peak or anytime tickets affected by the strikes can use their ticket for travel the day before the date on the ticket or up to and including Friday 11 November. Passengers can also change their tickets to travel on an alternate date or get a refund if their train is cancelled or rescheduled.”
Am I taking a risk by buying tickets for later in November or December?
While rail tickets will be refunded if the trains are cancelled, consequential losses will not be. So non-refundable spending – for example a hotel or event tickets – will be lost if you can’t make the journey.
The RMT says: “The union will continue its industrial campaign until we reach a negotiated settlement on job security, pay and working condition.”
Are any parts of the UK unaffected by these rail strikes?
Yes, so far railways in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Wight line have avoided industrial action.