What is the rail dispute all about and when will the next strikes be?

Nine out of 10 of the train drivers balloted for continued industrial action over the next six months have voted to strike.

They are members of the Aslef union, which is involved in a 19-month-long campaign of industrial action in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions.

Aslef says its members on Chiltern, C2C, East Midlands Railway, Northern and TransPennine Express overwhelmingly backed continuing with walk-outs, which began in July 2022.

All out: Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, being interviewed outside London Euston station on a previous strike day (Simon Calder)
All out: Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, being interviewed outside London Euston station on a previous strike day (Simon Calder)

Unions involved in disputes must reballot members every six months on continuing with industrial action.

The employers are the 14 train operators in England whose operations are controlled by the government and who belong to the Rail Delivery Group.

Last April, rail firms and ministers made what they say is a fair pay offer for 2022 and 2023, subject to train drivers accepting radical reforms of how they work.

It would take the average salary of a train driver for a four-day, 35-hour week from £60,000 to £65,000.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, says the ballot results represent clear rejection of that with-strings pay deal.

But the union boss is also offering an olive branch of sorts to ministers and the employers, saying: “We remain open and willing, as ever, to talk about a revised offer.”

Could a settlement be agreed – and can passengers plan journeys with any certainty? These are the key questions and answers.

Which rail firms are involved?

Aslef is in dispute with the train operators that are contracted by the government to provide rail services. In addition to the five train operators where drivers have just voted for more strikes (above), the companies are:

  • Intercity operators: Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, Great Western Railway and LNER.

  • Southeast England and Midlands commuter operators: Greater Anglia, GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink), Southeastern, South Western Railway and West Midlands Railway (including London Northwestern Railway).

Is this just about money?

No. Were the dispute simply a question of the percentage pay increase train drivers should get, it would probably have been settled months ago – or never reached the stage of industrial action.

But with the annual public subsidy running at around £2 billion more than normal due to the collapse in fare revenue since the pandemic, the government aims to achieve wide-ranging reforms across the railway – such as making Sunday part of the normal working week for all staff.

The aims are enshrined in the 2021 Rail Industry Recovery Group framework. The document says: “There are many working arrangements which need to be updated to cater for a 21st century railway to ensure that it is sustainable.”

Issues include:

  • Establishing a modern seven-day railway to support growth in leisure travel with robust working arrangements for Sundays.

  • Review rostering arrangements to enable greater flexibility in allocating resources to increase effectiveness and efficiency levels.

  • Introducing safe and emerging new technology (without additional payment)

  • Promoting a culture of participative and continuous improvement and removal of outdated practices.

Why are these unacceptable to Aslef?

The train drivers’ union says it is open to discussion on terms and conditions. Indeed, its charter calls for “the elimination of institutionalised overtime” which would require seven-day working to become the norm.

But traditionally Aslef has always “sold” reforms to working arrangements for an extra few per cent on their pay.

The employers – who are dependent on ministers signing off any eventual settlement – say this is impossible and that even a modest pay increase is contingent on radical changes to long-standing working arrangements in order to reduce costs.

In addition, Aslef has some red lines: the union is firmly against any extension of so-called “driver-only operation”.

What happens next?

The picture is murky, because train drivers working for two rail firms, LNER and Northern, will walk out on unrelated strikes on Friday 1 March. The industrial action has been called for what Aslef described as the train operators’ “persistent failure to comply with existing agreements” and is unrelated to the wider dispute.

At the same time, an olive branch appears to have been extended by Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef.

“We are asking the secretary of state for transport, or the rail minister Huw Merriman, to come and meet us,” Mr Whelan said.

“Let’s sit around the table and negotiate. You don’t want any more strikes, and we do not want to be forced to take any more industrial action, although we have the renewed mandates to do just that.”

What could an agreement look like?

It would closely resemble the deal put to the larger rail union, the RMT, which was overwhelmingly approved by members.

As a result the RMT has ended its industrial action (for now). The 14 train operators, represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), offered five per cent for 2022 and four per cent for 2023. Further pay awards, negotiated with each train operator, will be offered in return for agreements to reform working practices.

Why don’t the employers and ministers offer something similar?

The train operators would doubtless be happy with such a deal, but the cash would have to come from the taxpayer in the form of higher subsidies.

Some in the rail industry believe that the dispute has now become deeply political, with the government seeing continuing rail strikes by workers who are relatively well paid as a potential election issue.

Legislation now allows the transport secretary to stipulate minimum service levels (MSLs) on strike days amounting to 40 per cent of the normal service. No train operator has so far imposed the new law on the train drivers’ union.

The prime minister is said to be “disappointed” that train operators did not implement minimum service levels during the last national industrial action. In addition, Mr Sunakis noted for his disdain for the rail industry.

Mick Whelan has told The Independent that the dispute may not be solved until a different government is in power. In November 2023 he said: “When you’ve waited the best part of six or seven months or more, for someone to talk to you to solve what they claim is a major situation that needs to be resolved, but they make no overtures to do it, you have to assume that they don’t want to do it in this parliament.”

When will the next strikes take place?

Train drivers at LNER and Northern will walk out on Friday 1 March, in separate disputes. Hundreds of trains will be cancelled as a result of the strikes. In addition, an overtime ban will apply on the previous and following days, Thursday 29 February and Saturday 2 March.

Previous experience of strikes suggests that Northern will cancel all trains on 1 March, while LNER will run a skeleton service with reduced hours between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh via York and Newcastle.

Some journeys will still be possible on other train operators that cover the same routes, such as Hull Trains between London and Hull and TransPennine Express between Manchester and Leeds.

On the days affected by the overtime ban, Northern is likely to cancel a significant proportion of trains while LNER may cancel or curtail some services.

More widely, no passenger who depends on the 14 train operators involved in the dispute can plan more than two weeks ahead – since this is the minimum notice required from trades unions for strike action.

Having said that, The Independent understands that there are currently no plans to call further national industrial action until after Easter.

If, though, no progress is made in negotiations by April, further strikes in early summer are on the cards.