Train strikes 2023: Everything you need to know about September rail industrial action

Aslef and RMT unions are staging fresh strikes as disputes appear deadlocked

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 04 September 2023 06:30 BST
What strikes are coming up across the UK?

The first national rail strikes since the 1980s began in June 2022. The unions involved are Aslef, representing train drivers, and the RMT – the largest rail union. They are involved in parallel disputes with the 14 leading English train operators over pay, jobs and working conditions.

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.

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.

The RMT has so far staged walk-outs on 33 days in the current wave of national strikes, with Aslef stopping work on 12 previous occasions.

Caught in the middle: the long-suffering passenger. For over 14 months, 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.

Aslef is staging a combination strike and overtime ban for the start of September. Train drivers walked out on Friday 1 September and are refusing non-contractual overtime on Saturday 2 September – coinciding with the latest RMT strike.

These are the key questions and answers.

Who is taking industrial action, and when?

The train drivers’ union, Aslef, staged a one-day strike on Friday 1 September and called an overtime ban the following day.

The RMT says 20,000 of its members across 14 train operators have walked out for a second successive Saturday at the end of the summer holidays, on 2 September

Why have these dates been chosen?

As with any industrial action, strikers seek to cause as much disruption as they can. With rail commuting sharply down since the Covid pandemic, leisure passengers now comprise the main target.

The RMT strike on Saturday 2 September, is designed to wreck the travel plans of millions of passengers, particularly families returning from holidays and football supporters travelling to matches. It will also hit travellers arriving back from overseas holidays by air, many of whom would normally complete their journey home by rail

The Aslef walk-out on Friday 1 September was announced after the RMT strike was called. The aim: to deepen the disruption to passengers.

Typically with a one-day strike, travellers switched to adjacent days; with two days in which tens of thousands of trains are cancelled, the pressure on Thursday 31 August and Sunday 3 September was even more intense.

The train drivers’ action also hit weekenders attending a range of smaller end-of-summer events, including the British Country Music Festival in Blackpool, the Sundown Festival in Norfolk and the Moseley Folk Festival in Birmingham.

Overseas visitors arriving at English ports and airports for a weekend or longer stay were affected, along with people who were stranded abroad by the collapse of the air-traffic control system on Monday 28 August.

Sunday morning services will also be hit. Southern, which runs trains in south London, Surrey and Sussex, warns: “We expect first services to be extremely crowded and you may not be able to board your chosen service. You are advised to start your journey later on in the morning.”

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?

The impact is difficult to predict accurately, especially on Saturday 2 September when the Aslef overtime ban will exacerbate the effects of the RMT walk-out.

Aslef said of its 1 September walk-out: “The strike will force companies to cancel all services in this country.”

That was far from true, but the stoppage had more impact than the RMT strike.

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

  • Caledonian Sleeper
  • Grand Central
  • Heathrow Express
  • Hull Trains
  • London Overground
  • Lumo
  • Merseyrail
  • ScotRail
  • Transport for Wales

Many of the trains that these operators 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.

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

On affected train operators, these are the likely service levels. Please check with operators shortly before travel for the latest picture:

Southeastern: No trains ran on 1 September (Aslef).

The following day (RMT), most trains are cancelled. The train firm says: “Only 51 out of our 180 stations will be open.” Links wil run from London to Bromley South, Dartford and Sevenoaks, as well as the high-speed line from London St Pancras International to Ashford International, Canterbury and Ramsgate, with reduced service hours.

Southern: No trains ran on the Aslef strike day except a nonstop shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport.

A much-reduced timetable is operating on 2 September, the RMT strike day. Some stations will not be served.

Gatwick Express: Cancelled on both days of industrial action, but alternative Southern services between London and the airport are available.

Thameslink: No trains ran on the Aslef strike day. On the RMT strike day, the central London core between London Bridge and St Pancras International is closed. On the rest of the network, a much-reduced service will run between 7am and 7pm.

Southwestern: “Customers should only travel if their journeys are absolutely necessary,” the train firm says.

On all strike days, a skeleton network links London Waterloo with Guildford, Southampton, Ascot and Hampton Court.

Great Western Railway (GWR): “Many parts of the GWR network will have no service at all,” the firm says.

“Services will only operate for a limited period, starting later in the morning and finishing much earlier in the evening.”

A core service runs between London Paddington and Oxford, Cardiff, Bath, Bristol on both strike days, along with peak-hour services on branch lines. On the RMT strike day, more trains will run, including to and from Exeter and Plymouth in Devon.

Cornwall is cut off by rail on both days.

CrossCountry: Aslef strike day: no service.

On the RMT strike day, a reduced network with nothing southwest of Bristol to Exeter, Plymouth or Cornwall. No trains will run north of Edinburgh.

Cardiff to Nottingham trains will not run, and the usual link from Birmingham to Stansted Airport will terminate at Peterborough.

Chiltern: Aslef strike day: no service.

RMT strike day: the network will be reduced to a limited service linking London Marylebone with Aylesbury, Banbury and Oxford.

The impact is heightened by the current closure, until 29 October, of the line between Princes Risborough and Aylesbury due to work on HS2.

West Midlands Railway: All trains were cancelled on Aslef strike day. Limited service on the RMT strike day.

Avanti West Coast: Aslef strike day: no service.

On the RMT strike day, the basic pattern to and from London Euston is one train each hour to/from:

  • Manchester
  • Liverpool (via Birmingham)
  • Preston, with a limited service onwards to Carlisle.

Northern: All trains cancelled on Aslef strike day. “Very limited train service” on RMT strike days.

TransPennine Express: On the Aslef strike day: no service.

On the RMT strike day, a very limited number of trains are running on the Manchester Piccadilly-Leeds-York-Scarborough route; between Preston and Manchester Airport; and between Sheffield and Cleethorpes.

East Midlands Railway: No trains will run on the Aslef strike day, 1 September.

For 2 September, the RMT strike day, the operator says: “Only travel by rail if absolutely necessary and if you do travel, expect severe disruption.” But intercity services and local links are likely to be operated on the RMT strike day.

LNER: Aslef strike day saw a reduced service but regular trains on core routes.

On RMT strike days, LNER traditionally runs regular services on the London-York-Newcastle-Edinburgh route, with first departures around 7am and final arrivals around 10pm. London-Leeds services will run approximately 7am-6pm.

Great Northern: “An amended timetable with fewer services will run. 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.”

Greater Anglia: On the Aslef strike day, a limited service linked London Liverpool Street with Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester; Cambridge; Southend Victoria; and Stansted airport. First trains of the day started later, and the last trains finished earlier than usual.

On the RMT strike day: “Most routes will have a normal or near-normal service between 7am and 11pm.” But some branch lines will be closed.

The Underground, the London Overground and the Elizabeth Line are unaffected by the planned industrial action. But some routes that offer alternatives to rail services hit by industrial action, such as in south London, may be busier than normal.

Is Eurostar affected?

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

Why is Aslef calling its members out on strike?

Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, told The Independent: “This is a political dispute caused by the government. If it had been an industrial dispute left solely to the employers and the unions, I think it would have been resolved by now.

He called the changes stipulated as part of the deal as “basically a land grab for terms and conditions right across the board for a 20 per cent pay cut.”

He said: “That isn’t going to happen. This is going to go on until the government give us a solution.”

What does the RMT say?

The basic position as stated by the general secretary, Mick Lynch, is: “Our industrial campaign will continue as long as it takes to get a negotiated settlement.”

But on the day of the most recent RMT strike, Saturday 26 August, Mr Lynch wrote to the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators, with a more conciliatory tone:, He said: “I believe that both parties are of the view that we need to navigate a way through the dispute.”

He outlined a “road map” that includes:

  • Backdating a pay rise for 2022-2023, with negotiations for 2023-2024 to start on 1 December 2023.
  • A guarantee of no compulsory redundancies.
  • Deferring further discussions on changing working arrangements until 1 December 2023 at the earliest.
  • “Workforce Reform” proposals should be negotiated with individual train operators.

Mr Lynch said: “All of the change agenda that the companies wish to propose will be known in full and then addressed appropriately through the respective machineries in each of the companies.”

What do the train operators say?

A spokesperson for the RDG, representing train operators, said in response to the RMT proposals: “While we welcome any attempt to resolve this dispute and we are always open to talks, sadly both the content and the timing of this offer on the eve of strike action it is too late to avert - suggests it’s not a serious attempt to move forward.

“Our fair and affordable offer, worth 13 per cent to the lowest paid, remains on the table and we urge the RMT leadership to allow their membership a vote on it.”

Of the Aslef strikes, the spokesperson said: “Further strike action by the Aslef leadership is unnecessary and will cause more disruption to passengers looking to enjoy various sporting events and the end of the summer holidays.

“The union leadership has its head in the sand and refuses to put our fair and reasonable offer to their members. The offer would increase the average driver base salary for a four-day week without overtime from £60,000 to nearly £65,000 by the end of 2023.

“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 customers.

“We urge the Aslef leadership to acknowledge the substantial financial challenges facing the rail industry and work with us to achieve a more dependable and robust railway system for the future.”

What does the government say?

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “The government has facilitated fair and reasonable pay offers. However, union bosses are opting to prolong this dispute by blocking their members from having a vote on these offers – we continue to urge that members are given their say, and disruption is brought to an end.”

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 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.

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