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December train strike dates: Everything you need to know about rail disruption

Latest wave of strikes targets different regions a day at a time

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Sunday 10 December 2023 12:18 GMT
Simon Calder on the latest round of industrial action hitting train passengers

The train drivers’ union, Aslef, has launched the latest round of industrial action in its long and bitter dispute with 14 English train operators over pay and working arrangements.

The general secretary, Mick Whelan, said: ‘We are going on strike again not to inconvenience passengers, but to express our disgust at the intransigence of this government, and the bad faith shown by the private companies which employ us.”

Train drivers demand a no-strings pay increase followed by negotiations at a local level to modernise working practices – which will come at an additional price to the employers. Aslef says some drivers have not had a wage rise for five years.

The train operators, who are represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), say even a modest pay increase is contingent on far-reaching reforms.

Any deal will be signed off by the Department for Transport (DfT). Taxpayers will foot the bill. Ticket revenue is about 20 per cent down on pre-Covid levels, with the subsidy for the railway running at £16,300 per minute – £4,000 more than before the pandemic.

The union says it has had no talks with the RDG since April, nor with ministers since January.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “It is disappointing that Aslef are targeting the public and hospitality businesses at the beginning of the festive period. Instead of going on strike, Aslef should be following in the footsteps of the other rail unions and giving their members a vote on this fair pay deal.”

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group said: “This wholly unnecessary strike action called by the Aslef leadership will sadly disrupt customers and businesses ahead of the vital festive period.”

Aslef is in dispute with the rail firms that are contracted by the government to provide rail services. They are:

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

What is planned?

A nine-day overtime ban is causing thousands of cancellations from 1 to 9 December inclusive.

Union members are striking on a range of days from 2 to 8 December. Each day (apart from Monday 4 December), a different part of the country is being targeted to cause maximum disruption. Many train operators are cancelling all services on the strike days that affect them.

Aslef says: “We have, in the past, called everyone out on the same day; by spreading the strike action, for which members overwhelmingly voted, coupled with our ban on overtime – action short of a strike – across the week, the ramifications for the rail industry will be greater.”

What effect is the overtime ban having?

The impact on each train operator depends on the extent to which it is dependent on overtime – as well as the degree of staff sickness, which is likely to be higher in winter than in summer.

Some operators, listed below, have made large-scale pre-emptive cancellations to take account of the overtime ban and reduce on-the-day disruption. The general warning to passengers: “Trains are subject to short notice alterations and cancellations.”

On the first day, many early trains were cancelled. They include South Western Railway from London Waterloo to Southampton; Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Weston-super-Mare via Bristol and Carmarthen via Cardiff and Swansea; and TransPennine Express links from Manchester and Newcastle to Edinburgh, as well as a number of Manchester-Leeds-Hull services.

Rail firms that announced pre-emptive cancellations are as follows:

  • C2C: “Severely reduced service” at weekends, with many trains also cut on weekdays.
  • Chiltern: Significantly reduced service on most routes, with no trains at all on some branch lines. “Services on all routes will finish earlier than usual.” On 1 December, the company warns: “Chiltern Railways are unable to serve the England (Lionesses) vs Netherlands event at Wembley Stadium. No trains will call at Wembley Stadium all day.”
  • Gatwick Express: No trains from 1 to 9 December except on Sunday 3 December – when a normal service will operate. Southern trains will link London Victoria and Gatwick airport throughout the industrial action.
  • London Northwestern Railway/West Midlands Railway: Branch lines between Bletchley and Bedford, Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, and Leamington Spa and Nuneaton, will be closed on most or all days.
  • Southern: “An amended timetable with fewer services will run. Services may start later and finish earlier than usual.”
  • Thameslink warns: “A reduced frequency amended timetable will be in operation.”

Where and when are the strikes?

Train drivers belonging to Aslef are walking out on the following days on the following train operators:

  • Saturday 2 December: East Midlands Railway and LNER.
  • Sunday 3 December: Avanti West Coast, Chiltern, Great Northern, Thameslink and West Midlands Trains
  • Monday 4 December: no strikes
  • Tuesday 5 December: C2C and Greater Anglia
  • Wednesday 6 December: Southeastern, Southern/Gatwick Express, South Western Railway
  • Thursday 7 December: CrossCountry and GWR
  • Friday 8 December: Northern and TransPennine Trains

Neither ScotRail nor Transport for Wales is involved in the dispute.

What will the effect be?

Based on previous experience, these are the likely impacts when drivers walk out. Please check closer to the day of travel to be sure.

  • East Midlands Railway (2 December): No trains. “Do Not Travel. No Rail Replacement Bus services will be provided.”
  • LNER (2 December): Regular trains on core routes linking London King’s Cross with Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
  • Avanti West Coast (3 December): No trains. “Services on the days either side of the strike will also be affected.”
  • Chiltern (3 December): No trains.
  • West Midlands Railway (3 December): No trains.
  • Great Northern (3 December): No trains.
  • Thameslink (3 December): No trains.
  • C2C (5 December): No trains
  • Greater Anglia (5 December): Limited service linking London Liverpool Street with Norwich, Ipswich and Colchester; Southend Victoria; Cambridge; and Stansted airport.
  • Southeastern (6 December): No trains.
  • Southern (6 December): No trains except a nonstop shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport, from 6am to 11.30am.
  • Gatwick Express (6 December): No trains but the Southern airport shuttle will cover the ground.
  • South Western Railway (6 December): 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. A shuttle will run from Basingstoke to Salisbury. Trains will also run between Waterloo and Feltham via Richmond and Twickenham.
  • CrossCountry (7 December): No trains. “Services may start later than usual on Friday 8 December as a result of the industrial action the day before.”
  • Great Western Railway (GWR, 7 December): A core service will run between London Paddington and Oxford, Bath and Bristol, with a link from Bristol to Cardiff. A limited service on branch lines in Devon and Cornwall. The Night Riviera sleeper service from London to Penzance will not run until Friday 9 December.
  • Heathrow Express (7 December): Reduced service between 7am and 7pm only.
  • Northern (8 December): No trains.
  • TransPennine Express (8 December): No trains.

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

Is there a ‘worst day’?

Yes. Sunday 3 December proved chaotic for anyone trying to travel north-south. Almost all services on the West Coast main line, which connects London Euston with the West Midlands, northwest England, North Wales and southern Scotland, were halted by the day’s Aslef strike.

The alternative route for many would normally be LNER on the East Coast main line. But long-planned Network Rail engineering work closed the line completely south of St Neots in Cambridgeshire. Rail replacement buses were planned between St Neots and Bedford, where passengers would expect to catch a frequent Thameslink train to London – which were not running due to the Aslef strike.

Will all trains be affected at some time or other?

No. On all the strike dates, passengers can expect normal service on ScotRail, Transport for Wales and these operators:

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

On days when rail firms that operate parallel services are on strike, trains are likely to be more crowded.

For example, Transport for Wales services between Newport, Cardiff and Swansea could be busier than usual when GWR and CrossCountry are on strike.

Some trains may restrict either boarding or leaving trains at certain stations to avoid overcrowding.

What is I need to reach an airport?

London Heathrow remains accessible at all times on the Elizabeth Line and the Tube. Even during the Heathrow Express strike on 7 December, there is a reduced service between 7am and 7pm.

Passengers using London Gatwick were impacted twice: once on Sunday 3 December, when Thameslink train drivers walked out, and Wednesday 6 December when it was the turn of Aslef members working for Gatwick Express and Southern. But for main line passengers between London, Gatwick and Brighton, a fair number of trains were running. – though very crowded, especially in the mornings No Gatwick Express trains will run at all during the entire 1-9 December spell.

London Stansted had an hourly skeleton service on Tuesday 5 December, with “service alterations” on all the other days of the overtime ban.

Luton airport remained accessible by rail, at least from London, on all days: on the strike days. On Saturday 2 December when East Midlands Railway (EMR) is on strike, Thameslink was running; the following day, Thameslink was not running but EMR was.

Birmingham airport was inaccessible by rail, except for Transport for Wales from Birmingham New Street, on Saturday 2 December.

Manchester airport will be inaccessible by rail, except for an hourly link on Transport for Wales to and from central Manchester, Chester and North Wales, on Friday 8 December.

Will Eurostar be affected?

No, trains will continue to run as normal between London St Pancras International and Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. But connecting journeys will be difficult on strike days.

Is there any other trouble ahead?

Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, told The Independent: “We’re in it for as long as it takes.” He believes it is a political dispute that may not be resolved until there is a change of government.

Members of the main rail union, the RMT, have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a no-strings 5 per cent pay offer followed by local negotiations, with the assurance of no further strikes for six months.

Will there be any rail strikes over Christmas this year?

No. Strikes are decided by Aslef’s Executive Committee. Its next meeting starts on 11 December. in theory it could call a strike, which could not begin until Christmas Day because of the requirement to give two weeks’ warning of a walk-out. But festive engineering works mean there will be plenty of disruption anyway through to the start of 2024. So my strong sense is that there will be more strikes, but not until later in January.

What are the alternatives?

As always, long-distance coach operators – National Express, Megabus and FlixBus – keep running, though seats are becoming scarce and fares are rising.

Domestic air fares on links from the London airports, Bristol, Exeter and Southampton to Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow are likely to increase on the relevant strike days.

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