More rail strikes in September: what’s happening, when and why?

Another two rail strikes have been announced for September in disputes over pay, working conditions and jobs. But who’s involved and how will it affect passengers?

Who is striking?

Train drivers working for 12 rail firms and working for Aslef wll (representing train drivers) will walk out on Thursday 15 September, triggering the cancellation of thousands of trains across Great Britain.

It will involve more rail firms than the most recent train drivers’ strike on 13 August, with staff working for Chiltern, Northern and TransPennine Express stopping work after overwhelming votes in favour of industrial action.

Half of the affected train operators are mainly intercity companies:

  • Avanti West Coast
  • CrossCountry
  • Great Western Railway
  • Hull Trains
  • LNER
  • TransPennine Express

The remaining six are largely commuter and shorter-distance operators:

  • Chiltern Railways
  • Greater Anglia
  • London Overground
  • Northern
  • Southeastern
  • West Midlands Trains

Will any trains run on 15 September?

Yes, many. Train operators including c2c, Grand Central, Great Northern, Lumo, Merseyrail, ScotRail, Southern, South Western Railway, Thameslink and Transport for Wales are unaffected.

Services on routes where other operators’ train drivers are striking are likely to be extremely busy. These include Grand Central and Lumo on the East Coast main line linking London with Yorkshire northeast England and Scotland; Transport for Wales between Swansea, Cardiff and Newport; and c2c between London and Southend.

Eurostar international trains from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are unaffected.

In addition, train operators including LNER and Great Western are likely to run a limited service. But passengers can expect to be told to attempt to travel only if essential.

What is the train drivers’ strike about?

Pay. Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, says: “The train companies have forced our hand. They want train drivers to take a real terms pay cut – to work just as hard this year as last, but for 10 per cent less. Because inflation is now in double figures and heading higher – much higher, according to some forecasts – and yet the train companies have offered us nothing.

“And this for train drivers who kept Britain moving – key workers and goods around the country – throughout the pandemic and who have not had an increase in salary since 2019.

“We want the companies – which are making big profits, and paying their chief executives enormous salaries and bonuses – to make a proper pay offer to help our members keep up with the increase in the cost of living.”

What do the train operators say?

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing rail firms, says: “Aslef is once again set to disrupt the travel plans of the very customers who are crucial to the recovery of Britain’s railway and the long-term job security of their members.

“The strikes during the summer affected millions of people, ranging from essential workers to holidaymakers to people attending hospital appointments. Now, with the start of the new school year, thousands of children and young people who depend on the train to get to school and college will be dragged into this dispute.

“We want to give our people a pay rise; we know they are facing a squeeze – but the Aslef leadership must recognise that with revenue remaining 20 per cent below pre-covid levels, the solution lies in long-overdue reforms that will put the industry on a sustainable footing, improve punctuality for passengers and fund the pay rise our people deserve.”

And the government?

Aslef and the RMT union are firmly aligned with Boris Johnson’s government on Brexit, for which they campaigned fervently. But since their victory in the 2016 EU referendum the two sides have moved apart.

The government insists that it is not the employer on the railways and cannot intervene in negotiations between Network Rail, the train operators and TSSA – or the other unions.

But Network Rail is an “arm’s length” part of the Department for Transport (DfT), and since the coronavirus pandemic the train operators are effectively doing the DfT’s bidding, so ministers remain very close to the negotiations.

A DfT spokesperson says of the Aslef strike: “For the ninth time this summer, union leaders are choosing self-defeating strike action over constructive talks, not only disrupting the lives of millions who rely on these services but jeopardising the future of the railways and their own members’ livelihoods.

“These reforms deliver the modernisations our rail network urgently needs, are essential to the future of rail, and will happen; strikes will not change this.”

What’s the next strike?

Members of the white-collar rail union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) working for Network Rail and nine train operators will walk out from 12 noon on Monday 26 September for 24 hours.

The affected operators :

  • Avanti West Coast
  • c2c
  • CrossCountry
  • East Midlands Railway
  • Great Western Railway
  • LNER
  • Southeastern
  • TransPennine Express
  • West Midlands Train

The union represents members working as ticket office and gate staff at stations, some control centre and engineering staff and “a wide range of operation and support roles”.

The TSSA is much smaller than Aslef and the RMT (which covers many roles from signalling to guards). It is in dispute with Network Rail and all the train operators regulated by the Department for Transport (DfT) over pay, job security and employment terms and conditions.

The union is striving for a better pay deal than what it calls an “insulting 2 per cent offer” earlier in the summer.

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators, said: “We are disappointed that TSSA has announced plans to take further strike action at the end of September. The industry is still recovering from the pandemic and passenger numbers remain 20 per cent below pre-Covid levels.”

While TSSA members play important roles on the railway, the likelihood of significant disruption is low. It’s most unlikely that we’ll see mass cancellations of thousands of trains, as has been the case on days when members of the RMT and Aslef have gone on strike.

In addition, support for strikes is not as strong as with the RMT and Aslef – where ballots have typically gone 90:10 in favour of strikes, on high turn-outs.

But at the latest ballot of West Midlands Trains staff, TSSA members voted 70:30 on a turn-out of 65 per cent – representing only 45 per cent of members.

Could the strikes be called off?

The RDG says of the train drivers’ action: “Instead of causing further disruption to those who rely on the railway – many of whom are also losing pay as a result of this dispute – we ask Aslef to call off these damaging strikes and continue to talk to us.”

Mick Whelan, the Aslef boss, says the solution is simple: “Come back to the negotiating table with an offer our members can accept.”

A Network Rail spokesperson says of the TSSA action: “We agreed a deal on pay and modernisation with some TSSA members a few weeks ago, and as the union has said, we’re making good progress in talks with the rest of their membership.

“We’ll continue to meet with the TSSA over the coming days and weeks, and encourage them to continue working with us to find a breakthrough and avert strike action on 26 September.”

But the TSSA general secretary, Manuel Cortes, says: “The dead hand of Grant Shapps is sadly stopping DfT train operating companies from making a revised, meaningful offer.

“Frankly, he either sits across the negotiating table with our union or gets out of the way to allow railway bosses to freely negotiate with us, as they have done in the past. The reason for the current impasse lies squarely at Shapps’ door and passengers are paying a high price for his incompetence and intransigence.”

Could there be more strikes?

Almost certainly. The RMT union is expected to announce further national walk-outs, which are likely to take place in late September and/or early October. Besides the issues of pay, redundancies and working conditions, the union is concerned about what it says are plans to close ticket offices at stations.

In addition, the RMT has signalled further strikes by members working for Transport for London following a funding settlement with the government.

The general secretary, Mick Lynch, says: “This deal negotiated in secret by TfL and government ministers will likely see our members pensions attacked and further pay restraint in the future, coupled with driverless trains.

“Grant Shapps’ attack on Tube workers would be unacceptable at any time but in an escalating cost of living crisis it is shameful and will be resisted through further strike action.”

Finally, what’s happening on Avanti West Coast?

The continuing dispute with train drivers is affecting passengers on Avanti West Coast, which is running a reduced timetable until 11 September at the earliest. The biggest reductions are on services linking Birmingham and Manchester with London – cut to just one train an hour rather than three.

The train operator blames “the current industrial relations climate which has resulted in severe staff shortages in some grades through increased sickness levels, as well as the majority of drivers making themselves unavailable for overtime in a co-ordinated fashion, and at short notice”.

Aslef says Avanti should recruit more train drivers.

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