After members of the RMT rail union voted 8:1 in favour of strike action over jobs, pay and conditions, their union has called nationwide rail strikes for three dates in late June.
Union members at Network Rail and 13 train operators will stage 24-hour walkouts on 21, 23 and 25 June.
What will the effect be? And are other disputes on the horizon?
These are the key questions and answers.
What is this dispute about?
Britain’s biggest rail union, the RMT, has called three days of industrial action at both Network Rail and 13 train operators over pay, redundancies and “a guarantee there will be no detrimental changes to working practices”.
It says: “Network Rail and the train operating companies have subjected their staff to multi-year pay freezes and plan to cut thousands of jobs which will make the railways unsafe.”
The union’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, has vowed “a sustained campaign of industrial action which will shut down the railway system”.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “If our railways are to thrive, things must change.
“We could continue to pump in billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in the same, unsustainable way we’ve been doing for the last two years.
“But that would take money away from the NHS and schools.
“We could ramp up fares, but that would price working people off our railways permanently. We could cut services and lines.” The rail industry should be modernised and taken off “taxpayer-funded life support,” he said.
“We need the industry to help with that transformation.”
When exactly are the strikes?
RMT members are told not to report for duty at any time on Tuesday 21, Thursday 23 and Saturday 25 June.
Because some significant staff would normally start work at night, and continue into the following day, the industrial action is likely to affect services after the strike dates: the intervening Wednesday and Friday, plus the Sunday after it ends.
The strike coincides with a number of big events in late June:
- 22-26: Glastonbury
- 23 By-elections at Tiverton & Honiton and Wakefield
- 23-27: England v New Zealand cricket Test (Leeds)
- 24-25: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (London)
- 24-26: British Athletics Championships (Manchester)
- 24: Elton John Hyde Park gig
- 25: Armed Forces Day
- 25: Rolling Stones Hyde Park gig
The stoppage could also affect school students who travel by train; it coincides with history and physics exams.
The trend over the past few years in rail disputes is for a series of 24-hour strikes to be called. That limits the financial hit sustained by striking workers, but still causes widespread disruption.
How disruptive will the strikes be?
With signallers from Network Rail stopping work, trains will run only on about half the network, and only 22.5 per cent of normal services will run.
Crucially, trains will run only between 7.30am and 6.30pm.
The key links to and from London that will be operating, clockwise from the Thames Estuary, are:
- HS1 from London St Pancras to Ashford (including Eurostar services to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam)
- London to Gatwick airport and Brighton
- London Waterloo to Reading, Winchester and Southampton
- London Paddington to Reading, Taunton. Exeter, Plymouth, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff
- London Paddington to Heathrow airport (all terminals)
- London Marylebone to Banbury
- West Coast main line from London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow
- East Midlands Railway from London St Pancras to Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield
- East Coast main line from London King’s Cross to Leeds, York and Newcastle
- London King’s Cross to Cambridge and Ely
- London Liverpool Street to Stansted airport and Cambridge
In addition, a limited number of key routes not touching London will operate:
- Glasgow to Edinburgh
- Cardiff to the Valleys
- Birmingham to Leeds
- Isle of Wight
- East-west links from Liverpool via Manchester and Leeds to Cleethorpes and Middlesbrough, with some trains serving Manchester airport
On all lines that are running, there will be strict limits on the amount of traffic replacement signallers could handle. Even on lines that are running, not every station will be open.
As a result of the limited hours, key final services are scheduled to leave London at:
- Bristol 4.33pm
- Cardiff 4.27pm
- Birmingham 3.50pm
- Manchester 3.40pm
- Sheffield 3.31pm
- Leeds 3.05pm
- Newcastle 3pm
- Edinburgh 2pm
The industrial action is timed to affect services immediately before and after the strike dates, as well as the intervening Wednesday and Friday. In particular signallers will not work overnight, which will mean the first wave of trains will be very limited on many routes.
I’m booked to travel by train during the strike spell. Can I get a refund?
Passengers with Advance tickets are generally entitled to full refunds on strike days, even if the train runs. Alternatively, they may be able to use the tickets on a range of dates either side of the strike.
Train operators will not meet claims for alternative transport.
Will Eurostar be affected?
Yes. The route to the Channel Tunnel in Kent is controlled by Network Rail signallers. While Eurostar will be running about three-quarters of its trains, early and late services will be cancelled. Amsterdam is particularly badly affected with two of the three daily departures in each direction cancelled.
Anyone booked on affected services will be able to choose between free exchange and a full refund. People booked on trains shown as still running on 21/23/25 June who would prefer to rearrange their journey can exchange their ticket for free regardless of the ticket conditions.
What is the financial damage?
Network Rail says the dispute could wipe out up to £150m in ticket revenue, with tens of millions of pounds of costs also incurred for engineering works that cannot take place.
Using this figure, together with the RMT’s assertion that 40,000 members will take part in industrial action, it appears that the cash leaving the rail industry is equivalent to £3,750 for each striker
The damage to forward revenue will be intensifed if leisure and business passengers abandon plans to make journeys later in the summer by trains.
In addition there could be long-term harm if the strikes hasten the move from rail to road that the government is pushing with its cut in fuel duty and increase in rail fares by the highest amount in nine years.
How big was the majority in favour of striking?
Of the 71 per cent of members who voted, 89 per cent backed strike action. This represents 63 per cent of the workforce balloted, numbering more than 25,000 workers.
According to the RMT, it is “the biggest dispute on the network since 1989” and will involve 40,000 workers.
Just remind me about Network Rail and the train operators …
Network Rail is the infrastructure provider. The most critical roles in the day-to-day running of the railway are the signallers, who number around 5,000.
Train operators are assigned a patch of the network on which to run trains. Those whose RMT members voted in favour of strike action are:
- Avanti West Coast
- Chiltern Railways
- East Midlands Railway
- Greater Anglia
- South Western Railway
- TransPennine Express
- West Midlands Trains (including London Northwestern Railway)
At one train operator, GTR, backing was too low to pass the threshold for a strike. GTR runs Southern, Thameslink, Gatwick Express and Great Northern services in southeast England.
How will the passengers respond?
Rail travel habits have fundamentally changed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with many former commuters able to work from home. For them, the strikes would be irrelevant.
Key workers who have to be present at their place of employment – from health service staff and teachers to hospitality employees – would be badly affected.
Some leisure and business passengers may abandon plans to buy Advance tickets for summer dates because of the threat of a stoppage.
The government is encouraging a trend from rail to road by raising rail fares and cutting fuel duty. This trend is likely to accelerate if a strike is called.
What does each side say?
The RMT says: “We have a cost-of-living crisis, and it is unacceptable for railway workers to either lose their jobs or face another year of a pay freeze when inflation is at 11.1pc and rising.
“Rail companies are making at least £500m a year in profits, whilst fat cat rail bosses have been paid millions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This unfairness is fuelling our members anger and their determination to win a fair settlement.
“RMT is open to meaningful negotiations with rail bosses and ministers, but they will need to come up with new proposals to prevent months of disruption on our railways.”
Steve Montgomery, group chair of the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, said: “No one wins in the event of a strike. Staff lose pay, the industry loses vital revenue making it harder to afford pay increases, and passengers and businesses are disrupted.
“While we will keep as many services running as possible, sadly if this action goes ahead, significant disruption will be inevitable. We therefore urge passengers to plan their journeys carefully and find alternative ways to travel during the strike period where possible.”
Ultimately the government will decide what can be offered. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “It is incredibly disappointing the RMT have decided to take action that could drive passengers away from the rail network for good.
“The pandemic has changed travel habits – with 25 per cent fewer ticket sales and the taxpayer stepping in to keep the railways running at a cost of £16bn, equivalent to £600 per household. We must act now to put the industry on a sustainable footing.”
Could we see a longer strikes?
Unlikely. The preference of the RMT union is for repeated one-day strikes.
There are a few exceptions, such as the South Western Railway strike in December 2019, in which RMT members took industrial action for almost the entire month in a dispute over the role of guards. The train operator ran about half its normal services.
Anything else in the offing?
Transport for Wales and ScotRail were not involved in the RMT ballot – but ScotRail is currently cancelling 700 trains per day as a result of a dispute involving the train drivers’ union, Aslef.
The white-collar rail union, TSSA, is threatening what its general secretary called “a summer of discontent”. Members are being consulted ahead of a possible strike ballot if pay fails to keep pace with inflation – which hit 9 per cent last week.
Ministers say they may mandate a minimum level of staffing. How would that work?
Before the strike announcement, the transport secretary told The Sunday Telegraph that ministers are looking at drawing up laws which would make industrial action illegal unless a certain number of staff are working to ensure minimum service levels.
Similar laws are in place in other countries – and are often invoked when air-traffic controllers stop work.
But Mick Lynch said: said: “Any attempt by Grant Shapps to make effective strike action illegal on the railways will be met with the fiercest resistance from RMT and the wider trade union movement.
“We have not fought tooth and nail for railway workers since our forebears set up the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1872, in order to meekly accept a future where our members are prevented from legally withdrawing their labour.”