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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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, if the previous pattern is followed, international trains from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam will not run early in the morning from 5 to 10 November inclusive, and will stop early in the evening on 5, 7 and 9 November.
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.”
On Saturday 29 October, ScotRail staff who are members of the RMT will walk out for 24 hours. The train operator says there will be only “a very limited number of services operating on a small number of routes”.
Cross-border services run by Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, LNER and TransPennine Express will not be affected.
What do the employers say?
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, said: “A two-year 8 per cent deal, with discounted travel and a new extended job guarantee to January 2025, is on the table ready to be put to our staff.
“Unfortunately, the leadership of the RMT seem intent on more damaging strikes rather than giving their members a vote on our offer. Me and my team remain available for serious talks and continue to negotiate in good faith.
“Our sector has a £2bn hole in its budget with many fewer passengers using our services. That reality is not going to change anytime soon and a fair and affordable and improved deal is on the table, ready to be implemented if our people were only offered the opportunity.”
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators, rejects the union claims of profiteering, saying: “Since the end of franchising, the Government has paid train companies a fixed, performance-related fee to run services.
“That means it is the taxpayer who loses money every time the RMT leadership call a strike.
“Instead of repeatedly misrepresenting the industry’s financial position to further its own cause, we call on the RMT to recognise the very real financial challenges faced by the industry post-covid, which are being made worse by these strikes.”
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?
You can generally travel a day or two before a strike, or a day or two after, with no formality. Alternatively, you can ask for a full refund – including both halves of a return ticket if only one direction is affected by a strike.
“If you purchased your ticket from another provider, you will need to approach them directly,” the train firms say.
Am I taking a risk by buying tickets for later in November or December?
Only if you then also commit to non-refundable spending that will be lost if you can’t make the journey – for example a hotel or event tickets.
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.
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