Glimmer of hope for rail passengers amid strikes as union boss says ‘we’re willing to talk’

As a third summer of walk-outs by train drivers begins, the union boss has hinted that a settlement could be in sight.

A series of three days of “rolling” rail strikes is under way, with thousands of trains cancelled in London and south east England. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, all 14 train operators that are contracted by the UK government will cancel most or all of their services.

Members of the Aslef union have stopped work intermittently since July 2022 in their long and bitter dispute over pay and working arrangements.

No talks have taken place since April 2023, when a pay offer contingent on wide-ranging changes was flatly rejected by union negotiators.

But ahead of the latest strike, the Rail Delivery Group – which represents the rail firms – said: “We want to see an end to this dispute and in that spirit, we have written to the Aslef leadership to try and find areas of common ground that will allow us to move to formal negotiations.”

At London Waterloo station, Aslef’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, told The Independent: “We responded, ‘Yes, we’re willing to talk’.

“We now await dates and times and the stuff that comes with it.”

Many train drivers have not had a pay rise since 2019. His union is demanding a no-strings pay rise, followed by talks with individual rail firms on changes to working practices.

Mr Whelan said: “After 22 months and after the previous bad faith driven by this government, we need a relatively clean deal to get out of this.”

The term “relatively” indicates for the first time that their may be some room to manoeuvre.

The Independent has asked the Rail Delivery Group when talks could begin. But there seems no prospect that the three days of strikes – as well as a six-day overtime ban – could be called off.

London commuter operators are targeted on Tuesday, with South Western Railway, Thameslink, Greater Anglia, Great Northern, C2C, Southeastern and Southern all hit.

On Wednesday, intercity rail firms are cancelling all or most trains, as are West Midlands Railway and Chiltern.

By Thursday, the north of England will be hit, with TransPennine Express and Northern cancelling all trains. LNER will run a skeleton service on its core line linking Edinburgh, Newcastle and York with London King’s Cross.

A spokesperson for Rail Delivery Group, said: “We can only apologise to our customers for this wholly unnecessary strike action called by the Aslef leadership which will sadly disrupt journeys once again.

“It will also inflict further damage on an industry that is receiving up to an additional £54m a week in taxpayer cash to keep services running, following the Covid downturn.”

The current tranche of industrial action continues until Saturday 11 May, the last day of the overtime ban by train drivers.