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.
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 rail unions have indicated that they will continue to strike over the coming weeks and months if they fail to reach an acceptable alternative.
Despite the new transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, meeting rail union leaders, there are few signs of progress.
What is the rail dispute about?
There are actually dozens of individual disputes involving members of four unions:
- 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
The most prominent figure on the union side is the RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch.
Ahead of the October national strikes he said transport workers were “sending a clear message to the government and employers that working people will not accept continued attacks on pay and working conditions at a time when big business profits are at an all-time high”.
He said: “We want a settlement to these disputes where our members and their families can get a square deal. And we will not rest until we get a satisfactory outcome.”
Mick Whelan, general secretary of the drivers’ union, Aslef, says: “The train companies have been determined to force our hand. They are telling train drivers to take a real terms pay cut.
“These companies are saying that drivers should be prepared to work just as hard, for just as long, but for considerably less.”
What do the employers say?
Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, said: “We want to give our employees a decent pay rise.
‘It isn’t fair to ask taxpayers or passengers to fund this so we must fund it ourselves, which is achievable if the unions work with us to modernise and run the railway more efficiently.”
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.”
What about the government?
Network Rail is effectively a subsidiary of the Department for Transport (DfT), and train operators are contracted by the DfT to run services. So ultimately ministers call the shots on pay and conditions.
The rail minister, Kevin Foster, says: “The lasting consequences of Covid-19 on passenger numbers and revenue, and the impact of strikes on railway customers, have increased the need for reform.
“It is important that the unions sit down, stop striking and get on with coming to a deal that is fair not just for workers but for taxpayers, who have put £16bn into supporting our railways over the last couple of years.
At the Conservative conference his boss, transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said “there is a deal to be done”.
The unions have welcomed the replacement of the previous transport secretary, Grant Shapps, with Ms Trevelyan; both Aslef and the RMT campaigned alongside her for Brexit.
Are more strikes impending?
Yes. Members of the Unite union working for East Midlands Railway (EMR) are striking on Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 October.
The train firm said: “Unite members predominantly work in our depots and this affects our ability to provide trains for the days service. As a result, we will operate a significantly reduced service on Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 October.
“On strike days, you should only travel by rail if absolutely necessary.
“We expect trains running on strike days to be extremely busy and crowded. Seat reservations will be suspended on all routes.
“Most EMR services will run between the hours of 7.30am-6.30pm only. Please ensure you check the time of your last return train before you travel.”
Last services on Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 October from London St Pancras are at 3.31pm to Sheffield, 4.31 to Derby and 5.05pm to Leicester.
Train managers on Avanti West Coast who are members of the RMT will walk out on Saturday 22 October and Sunday 6 November in a row over the imposition of rosters.
The train firm says: “We are looking at how this will impact services and hope to have more information for you soon.”
What about national strikes?
Further stoppages could be called at two weeks’ notice by the RMT union and/or Aslef.
During RMT strikes more than 40,000 members walk out – including 5,000 signallers, whose absence typically shuts down half the Great Britain rail network completely and reduces the rest to a daytime-only service.
Aslef strikes typically involve train drivers working for more than a dozen operators. When drivers walk out, some train firms cancel all all services while others run a skeleton service.
Any other disruption?
Yes. Staff at ScotRail implemented an overtime ban on Friday 14 October 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.”
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.
In addition, members of the TSSA are maintaining an overtime ban at TransPennine Express and Great Western Railway.
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 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.
Will Eurostar be affected?
Yes, if RMT signallers walk out again, international trains from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam will not run early in the morning and will stop early in the evening.
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.