Home » May rail strikes: How is the latest train drivers’ walk-out affecting passengers?

May rail strikes: How is the latest train drivers’ walk-out affecting passengers?

National rail strikes by train drivers have entered a third summer with a series of “rolling” walk-outs, one region at a time, during May.

Members of the Aslef union are halting thousands of trains on 7, 8 and 9 May 2024 – with commuters who normally go to the office on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday among the targets.

The aim is to disrupt services on the 14 rail firms in England that are controlled by the UK government and represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). Rolling strikes cause maximum disruption for minimum loss of pay.

Closing time: GWR poster at Bath station announcing the previous round of stoppages (Simon Calder)

In addition, six days of overtime bans are causing further cancellations from 6 to 11 May.

The previous national industrial action by train drivers, comprising an overtime ban and rolling regional walk-outs, hit passengers in April.

Industrial action by Aslef train drivers in their dispute over pay and working arrangements began in July 2022. The union is demanding a no-strings pay award, but rail firms – directed by ministers – say any increase is contingent on radical reforms to working practices in order to reduce public subsidies.

During the dispute, hundreds of millions of journeys have been cancelled. Billions of pounds have been lost to the UK economy – particularly to hospitality businesses.

Taxpayers are pumping cash into an increasingly decrepit and unreliable railway to the tune of £90 per second on top of the normal subsidy. Over the course of a year, that amounts to £2.8bn in addtional public cash.

The quarrel has become increasingly bitter, with no sign of any progress towards a settlement. Negotiations were last held on 26 April 2023.

Caught in the middle of a seemingly intractable dispute: the passenger. In a snap social media poll for The Independent that garnered 2,142 responses, one in three rail travellers say they will permanently travel less after the industrial action finally ends.

For passengers, these are the key questions and answers.

Which rail firms are involved?

Aslef is in dispute with the train operating companies (TOCs) that are contracted by the UK government to provide rail services. They are:

Intercity operators:

Avanti West Coast

CrossCountry

East Midlands Railway

Great Western Railway (GWR)

LNER

TransPennine Express

Southeast England 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 north of England, the Midlands and links from London

Chiltern Railways

Northern Trains

West Midlands Railway (including London Northwestern Railway)

When are the train drivers walking out?

Drivers belonging to the Aslef union are striking in the following pattern:

Tuesday 7 May

C2C, Greater Anglia, Great Northern, Thameslink, Southeastern, Southern, Gatwick Express, South Western Railway.

Commuters around London comprise the main target.

Wednesday 8 May

Avanti West Coast, Chiltern, East Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, West Midlands Railway and CrossCountry.

The aim is to cause maximum disruption on key intercity lines as well as Midland commuter services.

Thursday 9 May

LNER, Northern and TransPennine Express. This is aimed at users of the East Coast main line and passengers in the North of England and southern Scotland.

What are the predicted effects at each operator?

GWR’s Night Riviera sleeper train from London to Penzance is cancelled until Sunday 12 May.

The Gatwick Express from London to the Sussex airport will be cancelled throughout the industrial action period.

For other operators, these are the probable service patterns – though travellers should check shortly before their planned journeys. Where trains are running, the normal hours of operation are likely to be curtailed.

Disruption is also likely on days before and after strike days. TransPennine Express says: “Plan carefully for any rail journeys as services may start later and finish earlier than usual.”

Tuesday 7 May

Greater Anglia is running to and from London Liverpool Street to Stansted airport, Southend, Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich.

Southern is running a shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport.

Thameslink is running a shuttle service between London St Pancras and Luton (town and airport stations).

Great Northern is running a shuttle service between London King’s Cross and Cambridge.

South Western Railway is running between London Waterloo, Woking and Guildford, with some other suburban services likely.

Southeastern urges passengers not to travel, but is running services between London St Pancras and Ashford on the high-speed line; Charing Cross and Orpington; and London Bridge and Dartford.

C2C has cancelled all services.

Wednesday 8 May

Five train operators – Avanti West Coast, Chiltern, East Midlands Railway, West Midlands Railway and CrossCountry – have cancelled all train services.

GWR will run no long-distance trains, but will connect Reading with Oxford and Basingstoke, as well as a link from Bristol to Cardiff and some branch routes in Devon and Cornwall. The company says: “Many parts of the GWR network will have no service at all and trains that are running will only be operating for a limited period during the day.”

Thursday 9 May

Northern and TransPennine Express has cancelled all services.

LNER is running a skeleton service on core lines between around 7am and 7pm, with about 25 per cent of the normal schedule. Its main Edinburgh-Newcastle-York-London line will have at least one train an hour, with some additional trains on the southern part of the network.

What about the overtime ban?

Members are also refusing to work their rest days from Monday 6 to Saturday 11 May, inclusive. As many rail firms depend on drivers working overtime, hundreds – possibly thousands – of trains will be cancelled.

On the first day alone, LNER cancelled or curtailed at least a dozen trains “due to a shortage of train crew”.

Greater Anglia, Avanti West Coast and West Midlands Railway will run a reduced timetable on each day of the overtime ban.

Avanti West Coast says: “On Tuesday 7, Thursday 9, Friday 10 and Saturday 11 May, a number of services will be removed from our timetable due to the overtime ban and Wednesday’s strike action. These are mostly on our Manchester and Birmingham routes, but removals have been spread throughout the day to keep people moving.”

GWR says the overtime ban will cause “some short notice cancellations or alterations to services across the GWR network”.

But Southeastern says: “We expect to run our full service during this time, except for Tuesday 7 May, which is the strike day on our network.”

Which rail firms are not involved?

Some publicly funded train operators will run normally: ScotRail, Transport for Wales, Transport for London (including the Elizabeth line) and Merseyrail.

“Open-access” operators on the East Coast main line – Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo – are unaffected. But many of their services will be crowded on days of industrial action. They duplicate some routes of strike-hit companies, including LNER, TransPennine Express, CrossCountry and Northern.

What is at stake in the dispute?

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 huge subsidies the railway is currently receiving from the taxpayer.

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. The deal required the union to accept 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 says this offer is unacceptable, calling it “a land-grab for terms and conditions”, and that the employers knew it when they tabled it.

Union leaders believe the money will be found to meet their demands, as it always has been in the past. Aslef has also always “sold” reforms to working arrangements for an extra few per cent on their pay and does not intend to change that process.

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 do the employers and government say?

A spokesperson for Rail Delivery Group said: “This wholly unnecessary strike action called by the Aslef leadership will sadly disrupt customers and businesses once again, while further damaging the railway at a time when taxpayers are continuing to contribute an extra £54m a week just to keep services running.

“We continue to seek a fair agreement with the Aslef leadership which both rewards our people, gives our customers more reliable services and makes sure the railway isn’t taking more than its fair share from taxpayers.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The transport secretary [Mark Harper] and rail minister [Huw Merriman] have already facilitated a pay offer that would take train drivers’ average salaries up to £65,000 – almost twice the UK average salary.

“Aslef are the only union left striking after the government oversaw deals with all the other unions. Instead of causing passengers disruption, they should put this offer to their members and work with industry to end this dispute.”

What does the union say?

The general secretary of Aslef, Mick Whelan, said big majorities in ballots for industrial action show the strength of feeling among train drivers – and that it would be pointless to put last year’s offer to a vote.

“We’re 22 months into this – the longest rail strike in history,” he told The Independent. And we’re still getting mandates of 94 to 99 per cent. Drivers would not vote to strike if they thought an offer was acceptable. They don’t. And that offer – now a year old – is dead in the water.

““Our pay deals at these companies ran out in 2019. Train drivers at these TOCs have not had an increase in salary for five years.

“It is now a year since we sat in a room with the train companies – and a year since we rejected the risible offer they made and which they admitted, privately, was designed to be rejected.”

When will the strikes finally be over?

Mick Whelan says: “In the words of Tom Petty, we won’t back down.” The working assumption is now that it will take a change of government before the dispute is settled.

No prime minister since Margaret Thatcher has demonstrated such contempt for Britain’s railway as Rishi Sunak. On the eve of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, he announced the halving of Air Passenger Duty on domestic routes – encouraging travellers to switch from rail to air and triggering a surge of new flights within the UK.

Tearing up years of cross-party agreement, the prime minister then scrapped plans for HS2 north of Birmingham and demanded a swift sell-off of protected land to ensure the project could not be resurrected. And Mr Sunak has tolerated 18 months of intermittent strikes by train drivers with no apparent appetite for a settlement.

What does the Labour Party say?

Louise Haigh, the party’s shadow transport secretary, said: “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 transport secretary, Mark Harper, posted earlier this month on X (formerly Twitter): “Buried in Labour’s rail nationalisation plan: greater control for the unions, more ministerial meddling,leading to fewer services. Making things worse for passengers.”

How much has all the disruption cost?

According to the RDG, industrial action from June 2022 up until mid-January 2024 cost the rail sector around £775m in lost revenue. That does not include the impact of the most recent strikes and overtime bans, which probably takes the total to around £1bn.

UKHospitality estimates the lost business for places to eat, drink and stay amounts to around £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 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 earlier this year, and opened consultations. Aslef immediately 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 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.