Train strikes 2024: The latest round of industrial action is under way

In the dispute between train drivers, rail firms and the government, the only certainty is further walk-outs

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 01 March 2024 21:01 GMT
Rishi Sunak has 'no interest' in ending train strikes, The Independent's Simon Calder says

The latest round of industrial action on the railways is under way.

Members of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, have imposed an overtime ban at LNER and Northern on Thursday 29 February and Saturday 2 March. Northern is warning passengers to “expect disruption”. Dozens of LNER trains on the East Coast main line are cancelled or curtailed “due to industrial action”.

On Friday 1 March train drivers walked out at both train operators – cancelling all Northern trains and most LNER services.

These walk-outs are unconnected with the continuing pay and conditions dispute at the heart of the national rail strikes that began in the summer of 2022.

Over the past 22 months, hundreds of millions of journeys have been cancelled. Billions of pounds have been lost to the UK economy, particularly hospitality businesses – and taxpayers are subsidising an increasingly decrepit and unreliable railway to the tune of £90 per second on top of the normal subsidy.

During that time there has been zero progress in the dispute between Aslef and the 14 rail firms controlled by the UK government and represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

In a snap social media poll for The Independent, with 2,142 responses, one in three passengers say they will permanently travel less after the industrial action finally ends.

These are the key questions and answers.

Where are we with industrial action on the railways?

Many rail passengers may feel national strikes have been going on forever. In fact, the first nationwide rail walkouts since the 1980s began in the summer of 2022. The train operators involved are the 14 English rail firms whose operations are controlled by the government

At the root of the disputes: the demand of the rail unions for a no-strings pay rise against ministers’ insistence that any increase must be funded from running trains more efficiently.

The larger rail union, the RMT, has ended its campaign of strikes for now. But Aslef, the smaller yet more powerful train drivers’ union, is as far from an agreement as ever with the

Since the dispute began, Aslef has called regular strikes and bans on rest-day working. The latest national industrial action by train drivers, comprising an overtime ban and “rolling” regional walk-outs, hit for nine days from 29 January to 6 February.

The aim of these rolling strikes and the ban on rest-day working is to cause maximum disruption for minimum loss of pay.

How much has all the disruption cost?

According to the RDG, industrial action from June 2022 up until mid-January 2024 has cost the rail sector around £775m in lost revenue. That does not include the impact of the most recent strikes, which probably adds a further £50m-£60m to the losses.

UKHospitality estimates the lost business for places to eat, drink and stay amounts to almost £5bn. Kate Nicholls, the organisation’s chief executive, says: “Ongoing strike action hurts businesses, prevents people from getting to work and significantly erodes confidence in the rail network.”

In addition, there is an unknowable loss of revenue from passengers who have adjusted their lifestyles or found alternative forms of transport; businesses that have stopped making trips and are using online communication instead; and people trimming back on travel because of the lack of certainty.

What is at stake?

The train drivers demand a pay rise to reflect high levels of inflation since they last won a pay award; Aslef says some members have not had an increase for five years.

But the government insists that even a modest pay increase is contingent on radical changes to long-standing working arrangements in order to reduce costs – and the almost £250 per second subsidy the railway is currently receiving from the taxpayer. That is 43 per cent higher than normal, according to government figures.

Since the pandemic, travel patterns have changed. Ticket revenue is about one-fifth down on pre-Covid levels. As taxpayers will foot the eventual bill for the train drivers’ pay rise, the Treasury as well as the Department for Transport will sign off any deal.

Ministers believe train drivers’ terms and conditions are part of the problem. To keep costs down, they must accept changes to how they work, such as making Sunday part of the working week everywhere.

On 27 April 2023 the Rail Delivery Group offered a pay increase of 4 plus 4 per cent over two years covering the 2022 and 2023 pay awards – subject to a host of changes on terms and conditions, covering a wide range of issues including driver training, Sunday working, sick pay and new technology.

The union say this is completely unacceptable. The train drivers will negotiate on changes, but only after they get a decent no-strings pay offer on top of their current pay, averaging £60,000 a year. They believe the money will be found to meet their demands, as it always has in the past. Aslef has also always “sold” reforms to working arrangements for an extra few per cent on their pay and does intend to stop now.

No constructive talks have taken place since spring 2023, and train drivers have walked out repeatedly – bringing most trains to a halt in England. Stuck in the middle: the passenger.

Which rail firms are involved?

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

Intercity operators:

Avanti West Coast


East Midlands Railway

Great Western Railway (GWR)


TransPennine Express

Southeast England commuter operators:


Greater Anglia

GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)


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 (including London Northwestern Railway)

Which rail firms are not involved?

ScotRail, Transport for Wales, Transport for London (including the Elizabeth Line), Merseyrail and “open-access” operators such as Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo. But their services are crowded on days of industrial action, where they duplicate journeys of strike-hit companies.

What are the warring sides saying?

Rail minister Huw Merriman told The Independent: “We believe a fair and reasonable offer is there on the table for Aslef if they put it to their members. These are train drivers that are paid an average £60,000 for a 35-hour, four-day week. The pay deal would take them up to £65,000.”

A spokesperson for Rail Delivery Group, representing the train operators, said: “There are no winners from these strikes that will unfortunately cause disruption for our customers. We believe rail can have a bright future, but right now taxpayers are contributing an extra £54m a week to keep services running post-Covid.

“Aslef’s leadership need to recognise the financial challenge facing rail. Instead of staging more damaging industrial action, we call on the Aslef leadership to work with us to resolve this dispute and deliver a fair deal which both rewards our people, and makes the changes needed to make services more reliable.”

But Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, says it’s a rubbish deal that he can’t possibly put to his members. Aslef members have consistently voted overwhelmingly for industrial action in pursuit of their demands.

The union says it has had no talks with Mark Harper, the transport secretary, since 2022; with Huw Merriman, the rail minister, since January 2023; and with the employers since April 2023.

Mr Whelan said: “We have given the government every opportunity to come to the table but it has now been a year since we had any contact from the Department for Transport. It’s clear they do not want to resolve this dispute.”

Meanwhile, the corrosion in confidence among travellers continues, with no rail passenger able to plan journeys more than two weeks ahead – that being the minimum notice the union must give for industrial action.

What about the new minimum service levels law?

Legislation now allows the transport secretary to stipulate minimum service levels (MSLs) on strike days amounting to 40 per cent of the normal service. The government says the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 aims “to ensure that the public can continue to access services that they rely on, during strike action.”

No train operator is seeking to impose the new law on the train drivers’ union. LNER said it might do so, and opened consultations, at which point Aslef called a separate five-day strike on LNER alone. Then the train operator said it would not require drivers to work, and the strike was called off.

The BBC reports that the prime minister is disappointed that train operators had not implemented minimum service levels. A Downing Street spokesperson said: “Yes, it’s something that we and the public expect them to use.

“We’ve been repeatedly been clear that this legislation is available for train operators to use.”

The Transport Select Committee has previously warned of potential unintended consequences of the legislation. The Conservative chair, Iain Stewart, said: “There is a risk of MSLs worsening worker-employer relations and that, as a result, MSLs could end up making services less reliable.”

The minimum service level rules do not apply to union bans on non-contractual rest-day working – so there would be no benefit in imposing the law when an overtime ban is in force.

What are the LNER and Northern disputes about?

Train drivers members of Aslef working for LNER, the main operator on the East Coast main line, and Northern – serving the north of England – walked out on Friday 1 March. Hundreds of trains were cancelled as a result of the strikes. In addition, an overtime ban applies on the previous and following days, Thursday 29 February and Saturday 2 March.

The industrial action was called for what Aslef described as LNER’s and Northern’s “persistent failure to comply with existing agreements”.

The Independent understands that the union is unhappy with what it sees as LNER’s routine use of managers to drive trains on some routes, and “toxic” local industrial relations at Northern.

Aslef’s Mick Whelan said: “We are fed up to the back teeth with the bad faith shown, day after day, week after week, and month after month by these two companies.”

A spokesperson for LNER said: “Our priority focus remains on minimising disruption to customers during Aslef strikes, which sadly will continue to cause disruption and delays.”

Tricia Williams, chief operating officer at Northern, said: “We're surprised and disappointed that strike action has been called over a local disagreement that we have all been working positively to resolve.“

Both rail firms are state-run, having been brought back into public control after the previous franchise holders stood aside.

What does the Labour Party say?

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said: “It is a staggering dereliction of duty that the transport secretary hasn’t got around the table with the unions to try to resolve it since the Christmas before last.

“Labour will take an unashamedly different approach to the Tories, and will work with both sides to reach a deal in the interests of passengers and workers. If the transport secretary took this sensible approach then perhaps we wouldn’t still be having strikes on our railways.”

The shadow rail minister, Stephen Morgan MP, has previously said: “Labour will bring our railways back into public ownership, as contracts expire, and ensure services work in the interests of the passenger.”

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