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 could 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”.
When exactly are the strikes?
Tuesday 21, Thursday 23 and Saturday 25 June. The industrial action is likely to affect services immediately before and after the strike dates, as well as the intervening Wednesday and Friday.
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 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.
What will the effect be of a 24-hour strike?
Assuming all Network Rail signallers walk out, management and other staff should be able to cover about 20 per cent of the network for about 12 hours per day. It is likely that only main lines would be served, primarily those radiating from London:
- West Coast main line to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool
- East Coast main line to Leeds, York and Newcastle
- GWR to Bristol and Cardiff
In addition, key commuter lines serving London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds would be kept open.
But there would be strict limits on the amount of traffic replacement signallers could handle. On many lines, no trains would run at all.
Even on those lines that have signalling, strikes by workers for train operators could mean that fewer than one train in five runs.
The direct economic damage is estimated at £30m per day.
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 are my rights if my train is cancelled?
You are entitled to a full refund. Train operators will not meet claims for alternative transport.
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.”