Thirteen months on from the start of the first national rail strikes since the 1980s, the disputes over pay, jobs and working conditions appear as intractable as ever. July has seen the resumption of industrial action aimed at more than a dozen train operators by both main rail unions, which will continue into August.
In a separate dispute, staff working for the London Underground will walk out for six days in late July in a row over over pensions, job cuts and what the RMT union calls “attacks on working conditions”.
In the national rail disputes, the biggest union, the RMT, and Aslef, representing train drivers, say many of their members have not had a pay rise for four years. They are demanding decent, no-strings increases that take into account the high level of inflation. The unions are prepared to discuss reforms, but these must be negotiated separately with commensurate boosts to pay.
Train operators and ministers – who must sign off any deal – insist modernisation is essential following the collapse of rail revenue, in particular the loss of much of the “bedrock” of season ticket sales since the Covid pandemic.
Caught in the middle: the long-suffering passenger. Since June 2022, national rail strikes and other forms of industrial action have scuppered the travel plans of tens of millions of train passengers. Stoppages have been called frequently, causing massive disruption and making advance travel planning difficult.
Transport for Wales and ScotRail are not involved and will run normal services, but some of the affected operators usually run trains in Wales and Scotland.
These are the key questions and answers.
Who is taking industrial action, and when?
The train drivers’ union, Aslef, is mounting “action short of a strike” in the shape of Monday-to-Saturday overtime bans. It carried out the first six-day walk-out from 3 to 8 July. The second began on Monday 17 July and will continue until Saturday 22 July inclusive. A third starts on Monday 31 July until Saturday 5 August.
Hundreds of trains are likely to be cancelled each day.
The biggest rail union, the RMT, has called` 20,000 of its members out on strike on Thursday 20, Saturday 22 and Saturday 29 July. The first two dates coincide with the Aslef overtime bans.
The late July walk-outs are likely to cause widespread cancellations at the start of the main summer school holidays in England.
A London Underground strike, also involving members of the RMT, will run from Sunday 23 to Friday 28 July. It is sandwiched between two of the national walk-outs called by the same union.
Which train operators are involved the national disputes?
The RMT strikes and Aslef overtime ban are aimed at rail firms contracted by the Department for Transport. They include the leading intercity operators:
- Avanti West Coast
- East Midlands Railway
- Great Western Railway
- TransPennine Express
Most London commuter operators will be hit:
- C2C (not involved in the Aslef action)
- Greater Anglia
- GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)
- South Western Railway
Operators focusing on the Midlands and north of England will be affected:
- Chiltern Railways
- Northern Trains
- West Midlands Trains
What is happening about the London Underground?
The RMT plans a walk-out from Sunday 23 July until Friday 28 July. General secretary Mick Lynch says: “This week of action will shut down the London Underground and show just how important the work of our members is.”
The union claims 600 jobs are scheduled to be axed, leading to “more unstaffed stations and a lowering of safety standards”. The union says bosses “plan to make London Underground staff poorer in retirement”.
London Overground and the Elizabeth Line are unaffected by the planned industrial action. But routes that offer alternatives to strike-hit routes, such as Stratford, Walthamstow Central and Ealing Broadway to central London, are likely to be especially busy during the walk-outs by RMT members working for train operators and the London Underground,
Why were the July and August dates chosen?
Like any unions, the RMT and Aslef are seeking the biggest impact – ie to cause as much disruption as they can. With rail commuting sharply down since the Covid pandemic, the target is now leisure passengers.
Aslef’s first overtime ban coincided with the first week of the Wimbledon tennis championships in southwest London.
The second Aslef overtime ban will affect passengers hoping to travel to the first four days of the fourth Ashes Test between England and Australia, which begins on Wednesday 19 July at Old Trafford in Manchester.
The RMT union’s national walk-outs are targeting what are likely to be three of the busiest days of the month.
Many families will be on the move at the start of school holidays on 20 and 22 July; those dates also fall during the Open golf championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
The 29 July strike will hit journeys to and from holiday resorts.
Cricket fans hoping to travel to and within London for the fifth Ashes Test at the Oval, which will be played 27-31 July, face disruption from all three components of industrial action.
The first two days will be hit by the London Underground strike; the third by the RMT national strike; and the fifth by the Aslef overtime ban..
The strike days for the London Underground, from 23 to 28 July, are intended to disrupt travel in the capital for as long as possible. In combination, passengers in the capital who depend on both national rail and the Tube will be hit by strikes on nine out of 10 days between 20 and 29 July.
Which trains will run during the Aslef and RMT industrial action?
Passengers can expect normal service on:
- Caledonian Sleeper
- Grand Central (except for dozens of cancellations due to fleet issues)
- Heathrow Express
- Hull Trains
- London Overground
- Transport for Wales
Southeastern: no impact expected from Aslef strike; RMT strike days will see much reduced services, with links only from London Victoria to Bromley South, London Bridge to Dartford and Sevenoaks and London St Pancras International and reduced service hours.
Southern/Great Northern/Thameslink: During the Aslef overtime ban, an emergency timetable with fewer services will run. The Thameslink core between London Bridge and St Pancras will be closed.
On Great Northern train will run regularly from London Kings Cross to Cambridge and Kings Lynn. Peterborough and Letchworth get peak hour services only.“Services will be busier than usual, especially in peak hours. It’s likely you will need to queue and you may not be able to board your chosen service. You should allow extra time for your journey.”
On RMT strike days, a reduced service will run between 7am and 7pm.
Gatwick Express: Cancelled on 17-22 July and on 29 July.
Southwestern: Reduced services during Aslef overtime ban, skeleton network on RMT strike days: London Waterloo to Guildford, Southampton, Ascot and Hampton Court. All other lines closed.
Great Western Railway (GWR): Night Riviera sleeper train from London Paddington to Penzance is cancelled from 16 to 21 July, resuming on 23 July.
The Aslef overtime ban “is likely to cause some short-notice alterations or cancellations”.
On the RMT strike days, “many parts of the GWR network will have no service at all”.
GWR says: “Services will start later, finish much earlier and only operate for a limited period during the day.”
But a bigger network than on previous days will operate, with trains on the following intercity routes to and from London Paddington:
- Cardiff and Swansea
- Bath and Bristol Temple Meads
- Exeter and Plymouth
- Swindon and Cheltenham Spa
In addition some regional services will run, including Cardiff to Westbury via Bath and Bristol, and Bristol to Plymouth.
Chiltern: Fewer trains and reduced hours during the Aslef overtime ban. On RMT strike days the network will be reduced to a limited service linking London Marylebone with Aylesbury, Banbury and Oxford.
Avanti West Coast: The Aslef overtime ban is not expected to have an impact. But on RMT strike days the picture is complicated by large-scale engineering work. The basic pattern to and from London Euston will be one train each hour to/from:
- Liverpool (via Birmingham)
- Preston, with a limited service onwards to Glasgow.
On 29 July there will be more trains with Birmingham and Liverpool each getting a dedicated service.
North Wales, Shrewsbury, Blackpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Macclesfield and Edinburgh will have no Avanti West Coast services.
“The days after industrial action are also expected to be affected – particularly due to the reduced timetable for engineering work, but trains may also start later in the morning than usual following the strike,” Avanti West Coast says.
Northern: “Disruption is expected between 17-22 July, particularly Friday 21 July, due to industrial action called by Aslef.
“There will be very limited Northern services on Thursday 20, Saturday 22 and Saturday 29 July.”
TransPennine Express: “We expect some services to start later and finish earlier than usual, and some journeys may be altered late or on the day of travel” – that is the prediction for the Aslef overtime ban.
On RMT strike days (20, 22 and 29 July) a very limited number of trains will run on the Manchester Piccadilly-Leeds-York-Scarborough route; between Preston and Manchester Airport; and between Sheffield and Cleethorpes.
East Midlands Railway: A number of train cancellations are predicted during the Aslef overtime ban. On RMT strike days, the operator says: “Only travel by rail if absolutely necessary and if you do travel, expect severe disruption.” But a significant service will operate hourly on these routes:
- London St Pancras to/from Nottingham, Sheffield and Corby.
- Derby and Nottingham
- Derby and Matlock
- Sheffield and Nottingham
- Leicester and Lincoln
- Mansfield Woodhouse and Nottingham
- Nottingham and Skegness (every two hours)
LNER: During Aslef overtime ban, “it is possible there will be short-notice alterations and cancellations”.
On RMT strike days, a regular service will run on the London-York-Newcastle-Edinburgh line, with first departures around 7am and final arrivals around 10pm. The London-Leeds will run approximately 7am-6pm.
Trains could be unexpectedly full as Grand Central – uninvolved in the dispute – has cancelled dozens of trains due to fleet issues.
Greater Anglia: “A number of cancellations” during the Aslef overtime ban.
“Avoid travelling with Greater Anglia on strike days,” the company says.
Will airport trains run?
The Gatwick Express between the Sussex airport and London is suspended, but Southern trains are available on the London Victoria-Gatwick link
Gatwick, Luton, Birmingham and Manchester airports will have some trains during the RMT walk-outs. Stansted Airport is likely to have trains to and from London Liverpool Street every hour from around 7am until the evening.
Heathrow airport is unaffected by the national walk-outs: it is served by the Heathrow Express and Elizabeth Line, as well as the London Underground. But during the RMT Tube strike against Transport for London, the airport’s Tube link on the Piccadilly Line is likely to be suspended – in common with almost all other Underground services
Will Eurostar be affected?
No, but connections to and from the train operator’s main hub at London St Pancras International will be difficult because union members working for all three domestic train operators at the station (East Midlands Railway, Southeastern and Thameslink) serving the station will walk out. On London Underground strike days, 23-28 July, access will also be difficult.
Why is Aslef taking industrial action?
Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, said: “Once again we find ourselves with no alternative but to take this action. We have continually come to the negotiating table in good faith, seeking to resolve the dispute.
“Sadly, it is clear from the actions of both the train operating companies and the government that they do not want an end to the dispute. Their goals appear to be to continue industrial strife and to do down our industry.
“We don’t want to inconvenience the public. We just want to see our members paid fairly during a cost of living crisis when inflation is running at above 10 per cent, and to not see our terms and conditions taken away.
“It’s time for the government and the companies to think again and look for a resolution.”
Why is the RMT striking nationally?
The RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has described the latest offer from the train operators – represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) – as “substandard”. He said: “This latest phase of action will show the country just how important railway staff are to the running of the rail industry.
”The government continues to shackle the companies and will not allow them to put forward a package that can settle this dispute.
“RMT will continue its industrial campaign until we reach a negotiated settlement on pay, working conditions and job security.
The RMT has staged walk-outs on 28 days in the current wave of strikes, with Aslef stopping work on 13 previous occasions.
What do the train operators say?
A spokesman for the RDG said: “More strikes are totally unnecessary. After a year of industrial action all the RMT has achieved is losing their members more money than they would have received in the pay offers they refused to put to put out to a vote, despite having agreed the terms with the negotiators the room.
“We have now made three offers that the RMT executive have blocked without a convincing explanation. We remain open to talks and we have said repeatedly that we want to give our people a pay rise.
“But until the union leadership and executive is united in what it wants and engages in good faith with the 30 per cent shortfall in revenue the industry is continuing to grapple with post-Covid, it is difficult to move forward.
“Sadly our staff, our customers and the communities across the country which rely on a thriving railway are the ones that are suffering as a result.”
What does the government say?
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “The RMT leadership’s decision to call strikes targeting two iconic international sporting events, as children and families begin their summer holidays, will disrupt people’s plans across the country.
“After a year of industrial action, passengers and rail workers alike are growing tired of union bosses playing politics with their lives.
“It’s high time the union leaders realised that strikes no longer have the impact they once did and are simply driving people away from the railway.”
I have a ticket booked for one of the RMT national strike days. 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.