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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Simon Calder

Train strikes 2023: Everything you need to know about September and October rail industrial action

Simon Calder

The train drivers’ union, Aslef, has announced the next round of industrial action in its long and bitter dispute with 14 English train operators over pay, jobs and working conditions. Drivers will walk out on Saturday 30 September and Wednesday 4 October, triggering the cancellation of thousands of trains on each day and wrecking millions of planned journeys.

In addition the union will impose an overtime ban on Friday 29 September and from Monday 2 to Friday 6 October – disrupting rail travel for over a week. The strikes are timed to hit the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, which begins on Sunday 1 October – the day after the first walk-out – and ends on Wednesday 4 October, the day of the second stoppage.

Announcing the strike, Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, said: “While we regret having to take this action – we don’t want to lose a day’s pay, or disrupt passengers as they try to travel by train – the government, and the employers have forced us into this position.

“Our members have not, now, had a pay rise for four years – since 2019 – and that’s not right when prices have soared in that time. Train drivers, perfectly reasonably, want to be able to buy now what they could buy four years ago.”

Caught in the middle of the dispute, the long-suffering passenger. This Q&A aims to explain what lies behind the conflict and the likely impact of the forthcoming strikes.

When did the industrial action start?

The first national rail strikes since the 1980s began in June 2022. The unions involved are Aslef and the RMT, the largest rail union. They are involved in parallel disputes with the 14 leading English train operators, which run the main intercity and commuter services.

Transport for Wales and ScotRail are unaffected.

For 15 months, national rail strikes and other forms of industrial action have scuppered the travel plans of millions of train passengers. Stoppages have been called frequently, causing massive disruption and making advance travel planning difficult.

The RMT has so far staged walk-outs on 33 days in the current wave of national strikes, with Aslef stopping work on 13 previous occasions.

The government – which contracts the rail firms to run trains – will sign off the final settlement. But the unions and management appear as far apart as ever.

What is the problem?

Both unions are demanding no-strings increases that take into account the high level of inflation. They say they are prepared to discuss reforms, but these must be negotiated separately. They expect any changes to be accompanied by commensurate pay boosts.

Train operators and ministers 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 maintain, is to fund it out of efficiency savings.

Which train operators are involved in the national disputes?

The RMT and Aslef strikes involve the 14 rail firms in England contracted by the Department for Transport. They include the leading intercity operators:

  • Avanti West Coast
  • CrossCountry
  • East Midlands Railway
  • Great Western Railway
  • LNER
  • TransPennine Express

London 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

Which trains will run during the strikes?

Aslef said of its September and October walk-outs: “The strike will force companies to cancel all services in this country.”

That is not the case.

On both the strike dates, passengers can expect normal service on:

  • Caledonian Sleeper
  • Elizabeth Line
  • Grand Central
  • Hull Trains
  • London Overground
  • Lumo
  • Merseyrail
  • ScotRail
  • Transport for Wales

Many of the trains that these operators run are likely to be more punctual than normal, because so many other services will be axed – reducing the prospect of congestion.

They may, however, be more crowded on routes that duplicate strike-hit lines. Transport for Wales services between Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, and between Crewe and Manchester, could be busier than normal. Some trains may restrict either boarding or leaving trains at certain stations to avoid overcrowding.

The three “open access” operators on the East Coast main line – Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo – are also likely to be busy.

On train operators affected by the Aslef walk-out, the planned service levels are listed below. Where trains are shown as running, services are likely to be between 7.30am and 7pm unless otherwise indicated.

Please check with operators shortly before travel for the latest picture:

Southeastern: No trains.

Southern: No trains except a nonstop shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport, from 6am to 11.30am.

Gatwick Express: No trains but the Southern airport shuttle will cover the ground.

Thameslink: No trains.

Southwestern: A core service of up to four trains per hour between London Waterloo with Woking, with one train each hour extended to both Guildford and Basingstoke.

Great Western Railway (GWR): A core service will run between London Paddington and Oxford, Bath and Bristol, with a link from Bristol to Cardiff. There will be “a very limited service” on some branch lines .The Night Riviera sleeper service from London to Penzance will not run from Friday 29 September to Thursday 5 October inclusive.

Heathrow Express: half-hourly trains between 7.30am and 6.30pm.

CrossCountry: No trains.

Chiltern: No trains.

West Midlands Railway: No trains.

Avanti West Coast: No trains. “Late services the night before and early services the next day will also be affected,” the train operator says.

Northern: No trains.

TransPennine Express: No trains.

East Midlands Railway: No trains.

LNER: Regular trains on core routes linking London King's Cross with Leeds, York and Newcastle. Planned engineering work means that a rail-replacement bus will run between Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Great Northern: No trains.

Greater Anglia: Limited service linking London Liverpool Street with Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester (though with impediments on Saturday 30 September due to engineering work); Southend Victoria; and Stansted airport.

What about the days before and after the strikes?

In addition to the disruption on strike days, trains on adjacent days may be affected. Trains on these days are also likely to be extremely busy due to passengers moving their journeys to avoid industrial action.

Is the London Underground running?

The Underground is unaffected by the Aslef industrial action, but a separate strike by members of the RMT union in a dispute over jobs and safety will cause an almost total shutdown of the Tube network on Wednesday 4 and Friday 6 October.

Will the London Overground and the Elizabeth Line run?

The London Overground and the Elizabeth Line are unaffected by Aslef’s industrial action. But some routes that offer alternatives to rail services hit by industrial action will be busier than normal, in particular the Elizabeth Line from Reading and Shenfield to central London.

On 4 October, the second Aslef strike day when the Tube will be hit by a separate walk-out, trains are likely to be extremely busy. Elizabeth Line passengers are being told: “There may be last-minute changes, including trains non-stopping at stations shared with London Underground.”

Can I get to the airport?

That all depends. This is how the main English airports served by train look:

Heathrow: On the Aslef strike days, the fast but expensive Heathrow Express will run half-hourly 7.30am-6.30pm. On the first day of walk-outs, 30 September, the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground provides a cheap (£5.60) and effective way to reach the centre of the capital.

On the second Aslef strike day, 4 October, the Tube will be almost completely closed. The Elizabeth Line is a swift and more expensive (£13.30) alternative. It is likely to be extremely busy.

Gatwick: The Gatwick Express is suspended, but Southern will be running a comparable (and cheaper) nonstop shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport, from 6am to 11.30am.

Stansted: Hourly to/from London Liverpool St, 5am-11pm. Trains are likely to be extremely busy.

Luton: No service,

Birmingham: Hourly Transport for Wales trains between International station (for the airport), Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury, with services continuing to Aberystwyth or Holyhead via Chester.

Manchester: Hourly Transport for Wales trains between the airport and central Manchester, Chester and North Wales. These are likely to be extremely crowded.

In addition, TransPennine Express is running rail-replacement buses on 30 September only between Manchester airport, Stockport and Huddersfield.

Southampton: No service.

Is Eurostar affected?

No, but connections to and from the train operator’s main hub at London St Pancras International will be difficult because of industrial action wiping out all services on all three domestic train operators at the station (East Midlands Railway, Southeastern and Thameslink).

Why is Aslef calling its members out on strike?

Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, told The Independent: “This is a political dispute caused by the government. If it had been an industrial dispute left solely to the employers and the unions, I think it would have been resolved by now.”

He called the changes stipulated as part of the deal as “basically a land grab for terms and conditions right across the board for a 20 per cent pay cut.”

He said: “That isn’t going to happen. This is going to go on until the government give us a solution.”

What does the RMT say?

The basic position as stated by the general secretary, Mick Lynch, is: “Our industrial campaign will continue as long as it takes to get a negotiated settlement.”

But on the day of the most recent RMT strike, Saturday 26 August, Mr Lynch wrote to the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators, with a more conciliatory tone. He said: “I believe that both parties are of the view that we need to navigate a way through the dispute.”

He outlined a “road map” that includes:

  • Backdating a pay rise for 2022-2023, with negotiations for 2023-2024 to start on 1 December 2023.
  • A guarantee of no compulsory redundancies.
  • Deferring further discussions on changing working arrangements until 1 December 2023 at the earliest.
  • “Workforce Reform” proposals should be negotiated with individual train operators.

Mr Lynch said: “All of the change agenda that the companies wish to propose will be known in full and then addressed appropriately through the respective machineries in each of the companies.”

What do the train operators say?

A spokesperson for the RDG, representing train operators, said in response to the train drivers’ strike announcement: “Further strike action by the Aslef leadership will cause more disruption to passengers.

“We want to give our staff a pay increase, but it has always been linked to implementing necessary, sensible reforms that would enhance services for our passengers.

“The union have rejected a fair and affordable offer without putting it to their members, which would take average driver base salaries for a four-day week without overtime from £60,000 to nearly £65,000.

“We ask the Aslef leadership and executive to recognise the very real financial challenge the industry is facing and work with us to deliver a more reliable and robust railway for the future.”

The prospect of a settlement in the dispute between the RDG and the RMT union is looking more optimistic. An RDG spokesperson said: “Exploratory conversations with the RMT are continuing.” That might be “talks about talks” – but with no industrial action taken or planned by the RMT on national rail since early September, the train operators’ relations are clearly warmer than with Aslef.

What does the government say?

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “The government has facilitated fair and reasonable offers to both RMT and Aslef. RMT members working for Network Rail accepted their offer months ago and Aslef’s would bring the average train driver’s salary up to £65,000.

“Further strike action will not only put a strain on taxpayers, but risk driving passengers away from the network for good. These strikes will not prevent the need for essential workplace reforms.”

I have a ticket booked for a day hit by strikes. 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.

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