Rail passengers in Britain are enduring the longest and most damaging series of strikes since the 1980s.
The bitter dispute on pay, job security and working arrangements involves the rail unions, the train operators and the infrastructure provider Network Rail.
The first national strikes were called six months ago, and more have been called before and during Christmas and after New Year.
The dates for the next round of national strikes are 13-14, 16-17 and 24-27 December plus 3-4 and 6-7 January.
On Sunday night, 4 December, the RMT rejected a last-ditch pay offer from the train operators, making it likely the stoppage will go ahead. It will constitute the biggest sustained industrial action on the railways since 1989.
The following evening, the union said it would put Network Rail offer to members but with a recommendation to reject – and announced a new strike from 6pm on Christmas Eve to 6am on 27 December.
So far this year the RMT has called 11 days of national strikes. In October three days of walk-outs were called off at short notice, but widespread disruption was still felt over the course of a week.
In addition, white-collar staff for many train operators and Network Rail plan industrial action, while Eurostar security staff have announced a pre-Christmas walk-out.
Separately, train drivers working for around a dozen rail firms – including intercity giants Avanti West Coast, GWR and LNER – have so far staged five days of national action.
Regionally, a range of industrial action from overtime bans to local walk-outs are causing further disruption, while Eurostar could be hit by a strike by security staff on the busiest days before Christmas.
What are the strikes about?
There are multiple disputes involving many employers:
- Network Rail – the infrastructure provider, running the tracks, signalling and some large stations
- Fourteen train operators, who are contracted by the Department for Transport (DfT) to run specified schedules.
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 and roles 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 arrangements – with the unions determined to extract a premium from any productivity improvements, but the employers saying any pay rise is contingent on modernisation
In the latest offer from the Rail Delievery Group, a pay increase of 4 per cent in both 2022 and 2023 was contingent on moves to close station ticket offices and increase the number of trains on which drivers, not guards, operate the doors.
When is the next national strike?
On Tuesday 13 and Wednesday 14 Decemeber members of the RMT union will walk out at Network Rail and 14 train operators. The action will be repeated on Friday 16 and Saturday 17 December.
For four days of stoppages, the union intends to cause disruption over an entire week – which would normally be one of the busiest of the year for rail travel.
A week later, members of the RMT have been “instructed not to book on from 6pm on Christmas Eve through to 5.59am on 27 December”.
This latest strike will have almost no immediate effect on passenger services due to the usual Christmas closedown of the rail network on 25 and 26 December; any disruption is likely to be felt in the morning of 27 December.
The stoppage is aimed at disrupting £150m-worth of rail engineering projects.
Which train operators are involved?
Six of them are primarily intercity operators:
- Avanti West Coast*
- East Midlands Railway*
- Great Western Railway*
- TransPennine Express*
The remaining eight are mainly regional operators:
- Greater Anglia*
- GTR (including Southern, Great Northern and Thameslink)
- South Western Railway
- West Midlands Trains*
Those marked with an asterisk are also involved in disputes with the train drivers’ union, Aslef.
How bad will the disruption be?
The effects of these strikes is now well established. The walk-out by around 5,000 Network Rail signallers means half the rail network will be closed, with a much-reduced service on the remainder of lines.
Non-union members will enable a skeleton service to run between 7.30am and 6.30pm, mainly on key intercity lines linking London with Brighton, Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Edinburgh, plus suburban lines around London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and southern Scotland.
Will the RMT strike affect other days?
Yes. In addition to the chosen dates the stoppage will cause minor disruption on the day before but major problems on the days after.
It may well be that “strike schedules” will apply on Thursday 15 December, because RMT members will walk out for another 48 hours on Friday 16 and Saturday 17 December – with the impact lasting into Sunday 18 December.
Similarly in the New Year, some trains will be cancelled on Monday 2 January the day before the strikes resume. Thursday 5 January will see serious disruption, and schedules will be messed up on Sunday 8 January, making it another full week of uncertainty for the traveller.
What is the TSSA doing?
The white-collar union has announced a series of strikes involving train operators.
The TSSA has called a walk-out by staff at Avanti West Coast to coincide with the already announced stoppages by members of the RMT union. They will strike in two 48-hour blocks: 13-14 and 16-17 December.
The union says the staff involved work “in a range of operational, station, revenue, on-board and management roles”. The stoppage is likely to reduced the “strike timetable” operated on those days on the West Coast main line.
TSSA members on c2c, Cross Country, East Midlands Railway, Southeastern, South Western Railway, TransPennine Express and West Midlands Trains will walk out on 17 December – coinciding with the final day of RMT national action before Christmas.
“Action short of a strike” begins before that, on 13 December. It involves members working for 11 train operators carrying out “only contractually required duties”.
The union says: “TSSA members will not cover the duties of other rail workers who may be involved in strike action.”
The operators involved are Cross Country, East Midlands Railway, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, GTR, LNER, Northern, Southeastern, South Western Railway, TransPennine Express and West Midlands Trains.
“Further industrial action over the Christmas and New Year period is being actively considered,” the TSSA warns. But the union has dropped planned strikes at Network Rail while members vote on a pay offer.
What do the warring sides say?
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, said: “This response from the RMT to a significantly enhanced offer exposes their true priority – using the British public and Network Rail workers as pawns in a fight with the government.
“What use is a referendum that means that strike disruption is inevitable? At best it’s the tactic the RMT played in October by calling the strikes off at the last minute and causing immense disruption to passengers and vital freight routes.
“They are playing fast and loose with people’s Christmas plans and the new strike dates announced deliberately target vital engineering work designed to improve the railway.”
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, said: “This is a fair and affordable offer in challenging times, providing a significant uplift in salary for staff.
“With revenue stuck at 20 per cent below pre-pandemic levels and many working practices unchanged in decades, taxpayers who have contributed £1,800 per household to keep the railway running in recent years, will baulk at continuing to pump billions of pounds a year into an industry that desperately needs to move forward with long-overdue reforms and that alienates potential customers with sustained industrial action.”
With the vast majority of trains specified by ministers and underwritten with billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash each year, the eventual settlement must be signed off by the Treasury.
The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said: “It’s incredibly disappointing that, despite a new and improved deal offering job security and a fair pay rise, the RMT is not only continuing with upcoming industrial action but has called more strikes over Christmas.
“The government has played its part by facilitating a fair and decent offer but, by instructing its members to reject it, the RMT has failed to play its part and our rail network now faces more harmful disruption rather than helpful discussion.”
But Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, said: “We remain available for talks in order to resolve these issues but we will not bow to pressure from the employers and the government to the detriment of our members.”
What other disruption is planned?
Local industrial disputes, a preference not to work overtime and what the train operators say are higher than usual levels of staff sickness are causing widespread disruption.
Aslef has withdrawn all non-contractual overtime at LNER on the East Coast main line, leading to a number of cancellations each day.
The union’s general secretary accuses the state-run firm of showing “a complete disregard for the agreements which shape our members’ working lives”.
But Warrick Dent, LNER’s safety and operations director, says: “We are confident that our contingency plans will keep disruption to LNER services to a minimum.”
On East Midlands Railway (EMR), members of the Unite union have already been on strike in early decemare taking strike action on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 December.
The train operator warns: “We will operate significantly fewer services that usual on these days, and on some EMR Regional routes no services at all.”
On the main intercity routes from Sheffield via Derby and from Nottingham to Leicester and London, one train will run each hour between 7.30am and 6.30pm.
In addition, Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express are both operating significantly reduced schedules until 10 December, blaming a drop in train crew overtime and “higher-than-normal sickness levels” respectively.
What about Eurostar?
Between 13 and 17 December and 3 and 7 January some early and late trains are likely to be cancelled as result of the closure of the High Speed 1 line between London and the Kent coast during the signallers’ strike.
In addition, members of the RMT union working at London St Pancras as security staff for Eurostar will walk out on four days in a dispute over pay: Friday 16, Sunday 18, Thursday 22 and Friday 23 December.
The dates have been chosen to coincide with what are expected to be the busiest days before Christmas, especially for British passengers heading abroad on trains through the Channel Tunnel.
The RMT union says more than 100 security staff – who are contracted out to the facilities management company Mitie – will take part in the action, and that it will “severely affect Eurostar services and travel plans for people over the December period”.
A Mitie spokesperson said: “We’re disappointed that RMT has made the decision to undertake industrial action, given we have already offered a significant pay increase and pay negotiations are ongoing. We remain open to continuing these discussions.”
A Eurostar spokesperson said: “We are aware that negotiations between Mitie and the unions are ongoing.
“If there is any impact on services we will update customers as soon as possible.”
I have a ticket booked for a strike day. What are my options?
Passengers with advance, off-peak or anytime tickets affected by the strikes can generally use their ticket for travel on days either side of the strike days.
Alternatively they can seek a refund.
But be cautious about spending on events or hotels that will require you to travel by train. While you will get your money back on rail tickets when trains are cancelled, “consequential losses” will not be covered. So non-refundable spending will be lost if you can’t make the journey.
Are future strikes likely – and when will we hear about them?
Unions must give 14 days notice of a strike, and usually announce them close to this deadline. When a sequence of strikes is called, as on 13-17 December, they are announced in one go.
Why isn’t there a continuous strike of the kind we have seen in the past?
Rail unions can impact almost a complete week by stopping work for three days – causing maximum disruption for minimum loss of wages.
Are any parts of the UK unaffected by these rail strikes?
Yes, so far railways in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Wight have avoided all industrial action.
Where will this all end?
It could take months. Rail staff tell me they feel undervalued and that stopping work is the only way to achieve a fair settlement. In addition, Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, regards the dispute as part of a wider working-class struggle.
On 3 December he told the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom conference: “We’ve got to make sure that the legacy of this time is a profound change in this society.
“We’re going to fight for what we’re going to achieve, and we’re going to make anyone who stands in the way get out of the way.”
But ticket revenue for the railway has slumped since Covid, and the employers say they have to balance the books – with pay rises contingent on modernising and cutting costs.
Meanwhile passengers are caught in the middle of an apparently intractable dispute, facing another day of wrecked travel plans, while the taxpayer picks up the bill for the financial damage the strike will cause.
At a time when the railway desperately needs to attract new passengers, confidence in train travel is at an all-time low.