Rail passengers in Britain are enduring the longest and most damaging series of strikes since the 1980s.
The bitter dispute between the rail unions, Network Rail and the train operators is about to enter its seventh month – with planned disruption unmatched this century set for before Christmas and after New Year.
The dates are 13-14 and 16-17 December, and 3-4 and 6-7 January. Between the pre-Christmas and post-New Year strikes, ie from 18 December to 2 January, an overtime ban will be in place.
If the stoppage goes ahead it will constitute the biggest sustained industrial action on the railways since 1989.
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 train drivers working for around a dozen rail firms – including intercity giants Avanti West Coast, GWR and LNER – have staged five days of national action.
Regionally, a range of industrial action from overtime bans to local walk-outs are causing further disruption.
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 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, but the employers saying any pay rise is contingent on modernisation
In addition, the RMT says members are “striking against proposed cuts that would make the railways permanently inaccessible for many disabled and vulnerable passengers”.
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.
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 it 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 do the warring sides say?
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, says: “This latest round of strikes will show how important our members are to the running of this country and will send a clear message that we want a good deal on job security, pay and conditions for our people.
“We have been reasonable, but it is impossible to find a negotiated settlement when the dead hand of government is presiding over these talks.”
He has accused the transport secretary, Mark Harper, of blocking a proposed settlement. The Department for Transport (DfT) rejects this.
A DfT spokesperson said: “With our railways remaining in desperate need of reform, we once again urge unions to call off damaging strike action and work with employers to agree a way forward that is fair for taxpayers, passengers and workers alike.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) has studiously sought to distance itself from the fierce negotiations between Network Rail, the train operators and the unions.
Yet with the vast majority of trains specified by ministers and underwritten with billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash, the eventual settlement must be signed off by the Treasury.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, will meet Mr Harper at the DfT on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, said: “For the first time in months we can see the outline of a credible deal.
“Further strikes, especially in the run up to Christmas, will disrupt the first normal festive season our passengers have been able to look forward to since the Covid pandemic, taking even more money out of the pockets of railway staff, and will cause huge damage to the hospitality and retail sectors dependent on this time of the year for their businesses. We owe it to them to stay round the table.
“Industrial action has already cost the industry millions in lost revenue, is stalling its post-pandemic recovery, and threatening its long-term sustainability.”
Jake Kelly, Network Rail’s director of operations, said: “The RMT is going to inflict on our country, our passengers and our industry an unprecedented and sustained period of rail disruption across the entire festive period that will have a massive impact on businesses and our economy.
“The rail industry is already well advanced in its planning and will do all it can to run as many services as it can across the Christmas and New Year period. But passengers need to be prepared for weeks of disruption as a result of the RMT’s chosen course of action.”
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. 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 will take strike action on Friday 2, Saturday 3, 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.
“EMR are unable to run any train services to/from Lincoln for the Christmas Market on either Friday 2 or Saturday 3 December.”
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.
RMT members working for Avanti West Coast will walk out on Sunday 11 and Monday 12 December, immediately before the next round of national strikes.
The train operators 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.
“We will announce revised timetables as soon as possible.”
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.
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?
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, says: “This union is determined to continue with this campaign until the employers understand that they need to respond to our members’ aspirations on job security, pay and working conditions.”
His union says that the average member earns £31,000 and has not had a pay rise in three years.
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 5-7-9 November, 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.
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.