Train strikes: Everything you need to know about October rail industrial action

‘This is a political dispute caused by the government,’ claims train drivers’ union

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 05 October 2023 06:48 BST
No end in sight for rail strikes, says Mick Whelan

The train drivers’ union, Aslef, has embarked on the latest round of industrial action in its long and bitter dispute with 14 English train operators over pay, jobs and working conditions. Drivers walked out on Saturday 30 September and will do the same on Wednesday 4 October, triggering the cancellation of thousands of trains on each day and wrecking millions of planned journeys.

In addition the union has imposed an overtime ban until Friday 6 October – disrupting rail travel for over a week. The strikes are timed to hit the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, which began on Sunday 1 October – the day after the first walk-out – and ends on Wednesday 4 October, the day of the second stoppage.

Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, said: “We have a government that’s not interested in rail, that’s clearly only interested in road and air, that doesn’t care about the travelling public, doesn't care about disabled people, wants to close the ticket offices.

“What they want us to do is take a 20 per cent pay cut and give up all our terms and conditions.”

In response, a Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson said: “The government spent £31bn of taxpayers’ money – £1,000 per household – to protect rail workers’ jobs during the pandemic.

“There is a fair and reasonable offer on the table that would take train drivers salaries from £60,000 to £65,000. Aslef's leaders won’t put this offer to their members and instead continue to strike – damaging their own industry in the process.”

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, said : “Further strike action by the Aslef leadership will cause more disruption to passengers.

“We want to give our staff a pay increase, but it has always been linked to implementing necessary, sensible reforms that would enhance services for our passengers.

“We ask the Aslef leadership and executive to recognise the very real financial challenge the industry is facing and work with us to deliver a more reliable and robust railway for the future.”

Caught in the middle of the dispute, the long-suffering passenger. This Q&A aims to explain what lies behind the conflict and the likely impact of the forthcoming strikes.

When did the industrial action start?

The first national rail strikes since the 1980s began in June 2022. The unions involved are Aslef and the RMT, the largest rail union. They are involved in parallel disputes with the 14 leading English train operators, which run the main intercity and commuter services.

Transport for Wales and ScotRail are unaffected.

For 15 months, national rail strikes and other forms of industrial action have scuppered the travel plans of millions of train passengers. Stoppages have been called frequently, causing massive disruption and making advance travel planning difficult.

The RMT has so far staged walk-outs on 33 days in the current wave of national strikes, with Aslef stopping work on 14 previous occasions.

The government – which contracts the rail firms to run trains – will sign off the final settlement. But the unions and management appear as far apart as ever.

What is the problem?

Both unions are demanding no-strings increases that take into account the high level of inflation. They say they are prepared to discuss reforms, but these must be negotiated separately. They expect any changes to be accompanied by commensurate pay boosts.

Train operators and ministers insist modernisation is essential following the collapse of rail revenue. Much of the “bedrock” of season ticket sales has vanished since the Covid pandemic. The only way to award even a modest increase, the employers maintain, is to fund it out of efficiency savings.

Which train operators are involved in the national disputes?

The RMT and Aslef strikes involve the 14 rail firms in England contracted by the Department for Transport. They include the leading intercity operators:

  • Avanti West Coast
  • CrossCountry
  • East Midlands Railway
  • Great Western Railway
  • LNER
  • TransPennine Express

London commuter operators:

  • C2C
  • Greater Anglia
  • GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)
  • Southeastern
  • South Western Railway (including the Island Line on the Isle of Wight)

Operators focusing on the Midlands and north of England:

  • Chiltern Railways
  • Northern Trains
  • West Midlands Railway

Which trains will run during the strikes?

Aslef said of its latest walk-outs: “The strike will force companies to cancel all services in this country.”

That is not the case.

On both the strike dates, passengers can expect normal service on:

  • Caledonian Sleeper
  • Elizabeth Line
  • Grand Central
  • Hull Trains
  • London Overground
  • Lumo
  • Merseyrail
  • ScotRail
  • Transport for Wales

Many of the trains that these operators run are likely to be more punctual than normal, because so many other services will be axed – reducing the prospect of congestion.

They may, however, be more crowded on routes that duplicate strike-hit lines. Transport for Wales services between Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, and between Crewe and Manchester, could be busier than normal. Some trains may restrict either boarding or leaving trains at certain stations to avoid overcrowding.

The three “open access” operators on the East Coast main line – Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo – are also likely to be busy.

On train operators affected by the Aslef walk-out, the planned service levels are listed below. Where trains are shown as running, services are likely to be between 7.30am and 7pm unless otherwise indicated.

Please check with operators shortly before travel for the latest picture:

Southeastern: No trains.

Southern: No trains except a nonstop shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport, from 6am to 11.30am.

Gatwick Express: No trains but the Southern airport shuttle will cover the ground.

Thameslink: No trains.

Southwestern: A core service of up to four trains per hour between London Waterloo with Woking, with one train each hour extended to both Guildford and Basingstoke.

Great Western Railway (GWR): A core service will run between London Paddington and Oxford, Bath and Bristol, with a link from Bristol to Cardiff. There will be “a very limited service” on some branch lines .

The Night Riviera sleeper service from London to Penzance will not run until Friday 6 October.

Heathrow Express: half-hourly trains between 7.30am and 6.30pm.

CrossCountry: No trains.

Chiltern: No trains.

West Midlands Railway: No trains.

Avanti West Coast: No trains. “Late services the night before and early services the next day will also be affected,” the train operator says.

Northern: No trains.

TransPennine Express: No trains.

East Midlands Railway: No trains.

LNER: Regular trains on core routes linking London King's Cross with Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Great Northern: No trains.

Greater Anglia: Limited service linking London Liverpool Street with Norwich, Ipswich and Colchester; Southend Victoria; and Stansted airport.

What about the days before and after the strikes?

In addition to the disruption on strike days, trains on adjacent days may be affected. Trains on these days are also likely to be extremely busy due to passengers moving their journeys to avoid industrial action.

Is the London Underground running?

The Underground is unaffected by the Aslef industrial action. A separate strike by members of the RMT union in a dispute over jobs and safety on Wednesday 4 and Friday 6 October was called off at the last minute.

Will the London Overground and the Elizabeth Line run?

The London Overground and the Elizabeth Line are unaffected by Aslef’s industrial action. But some routes that offer alternatives to rail services hit by industrial action will be busier than normal, in particular the Elizabeth Line from Reading and Shenfield to central London.

Can I get to the airport?

That all depends. This is how the main English airports served by train look:

Heathrow: On the Aslef strike days, the fast but expensive Heathrow Express will run half-hourly 7.30am-6.30pm. The Elizabeth Line is a swift and cheaper (£13.30) alternative. But the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line will continue to offer slow but inexpensive transfers.

Gatwick: The Gatwick Express is suspended, but Southern will be running a comparable (and cheaper) nonstop shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport, from 6am to 11.30am.

Stansted: Hourly to/from London Liverpool St, 5am-11pm. Trains are likely to be extremely busy.

Luton: No service,

Birmingham: Hourly Transport for Wales trains between International station (for the airport), Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury, with services continuing to Aberystwyth or Holyhead via Chester.

Manchester: Hourly Transport for Wales trains between the airport and central Manchester, Chester and North Wales. These are likely to be extremely crowded.

Southampton: No service.

Is Eurostar affected?

No, but connections to and from the train operator’s main hub at London St Pancras International will be difficult because of industrial action wiping out all services on all three domestic train operators at the station (East Midlands Railway, Southeastern and Thameslink).

I have a ticket booked for a day hit by strikes. 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 offering flexibility to travel on non-strike days, up to Friday 6 October (the day of another London Underground strike).

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.

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