Sunday train chaos awaits for hundreds of thousands of rail passengers as drivers’ overtime ban bites

For hundreds of thousands of rail passengers, Sunday will prove chaotic. There are no actual rail strikes: it’s a one-day pause in the current round of walkouts by train drivers. Yet their overtime ban continues, and as a result, thousands of trains will be cancelled.

Large swathes of the nation will be without trains, with West Midlands Railway, London Northwestern Railway and Chiltern Railways cancelling all their services.

In the early hours of Sunday, Thameslink and Great Northern issued a “Do Not Travel” notice for their networks.

In addition, key intercity links including London to Bristol, Cardiff and Cambridge will be closed to passengers and many other lines will be affected.

Here we take a look at the key questions and answers ahead of the day of travel chaos:

Are the railways still affected by industrial action?

Many rail passengers may feel the strikes have been going on forever. In fact, the first national rail walkouts since the 1980s began in the summer of 2022.

The larger rail union, the RMT, has ended its campaign of strikes for now. But Aslef, the smaller yet more powerful train drivers’ union, is as far from an agreement as ever with the 14 English rail firms whose operations are controlled by the government.

Since the dispute began, Aslef has called regular strikes and bans on rest-day working. Train drivers are currently in the middle of a nine-day spell of industrial action, comprising an overtime ban and “rolling” regional strikes.

On Saturday, it hit passengers on the West Coast main line and East Midlands network. Tomorrow it’s the turn of West of England and CrossCountry routes.

What’s different this time?

It’s only the second time in 19 months of strikes and overtime bans by train drivers that Aslef has included Sunday in a prohibition on rest-day working. On other days of the week, overtime bans cause cancellations because many rail firms don’t have enough train drivers to cover their schedules without bringing in staff on overtime.

Aslef says no train operator “employs enough drivers to provide the service they promise passengers and businesses they will deliver without asking drivers to work their days off”.

The effect of an overtime ban on Sunday services will be dramatic. While staff on most forms of public transport, such as buses and planes, can be required to work on any day of the week, Sunday is a day of rest for many rail staff. Train drivers whose contracts don’t have Sunday in the working week are perfectly entitled to choose not to work. As a result, large swathes of the nation will be without rail services – with the Midlands and the West of England particularly hard hit.

Do rail firms normally rely on train drivers working overtime to cover Sundays?

Yes, in some parts of the country. And not just train drivers, other rail staff as well. Even within the same rail firm, the Sunday rule can vary. Northern Trains staff who are based west of the Pennines do not have Sunday included in their working week, while their colleagues on the east side of the range must work on Sundays if instructed to do so.

On Great Western, only newer train drivers are required to work on any day of the week. Those who joined over seven years ago can choose whether or not to work Sundays.

What about the new minimum service levels law?

Even if one or more of the train operators had decided to impose “minimum service levels” as the law now allows them to do, it would make no difference – because the new rules can’t force people to work on their days off.

Where are the key Sunday problems?

Chiltern Railways, which connects London with Oxford and Birmingham, says no trains will run at all anywhere on its network. The same applies for West Midlands Railway and London Northwestern Railway. That means dozens of stations will see no trains at all, including every station on the line between London Euston and Rugby except Watford Junction and Milton Keynes.

For the first time on any day with industrial action, Great Western will not connect London with Bristol. Trains from the capital will go no further west than Swindon, which means Cardiff is also cut off from London.

In the early hours of Sunday, Thameslink and Great Northern issued a “Do Not Travel” notice for their networks. Some key routes including London to Cambridge and King’s Lynn are completely closed, while others linking Brighton with London and Bedford face severe disruption.

In East Anglia, some rail links will be replaced by buses, while C2C, serving south Essex, says it will have a “severely reduced service”.

On top of that ban on rest-day working, there is planned engineering work between Birmingham and Wolverhampton on the West Coast main line and between London King’s Cross and Stevenage on the East Coast main line.

The Gatwick Express between the capital and the Sussex airport is suspended due to the overtime ban, as is the Night Riviera sleeper train between London Paddington and Penzance.

What’s at the root of the dispute?

Since the pandemic, travel patterns have changed. Ticket revenue is about one-fifth down on pre-Covid levels. The public subsidy to keep the railways running is currently running at over £17,000 per minute – a rise of 43 per cent on the usual subsidy, according to the government. As taxpayers will foot the eventual bill for the train drivers’ pay rise, the Department for Transport will sign off any deal. Ministers believe train drivers’ terms and conditions are part of the problem.

To keep costs down, they must accept changes to how they work, such as making Sunday part of the working week everywhere. The union say this is completely unacceptable. The train drivers will negotiate on such changes, but only after they get a decent no-strings pay offer on top of their current pay, averaging £60,000 a year. They’ve always “sold” reforms to working arrangements for an extra few per cent on their pay, and they don’t intend to stop now. Stuck in the middle: the passenger.

What are the warring sides saying?

Rail minister Huw Merriman told The Independent: “We believe a fair and reasonable offer is there on the table for Aslef if they put it to their members. These are train drivers that are paid an average £60,000 for a 35-hour, four-day week. The pay deal would take them up to £65,000.”

But Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, says it’s a rubbish deal that he can’t possibly put to his members – some of whom have not had a pay rise for five years. He says ministers have refused to engage with the union for over a year. He told The Independent: “Any industrial action is incredibly damaging, but after 18 months out on strike, and after a year with no one in the government or the [train operating] companies talking to us, we are forced to raise the profile of our issues.”

One rail industry insider said the Sunday move by Aslef could turn out to be counter-productive for the union – by drawing attention to the restrictive agreements that ministers say they want to reform.

Meanwhile, the corrosion in confidence among travellers continues, with no rail passenger able to plan journeys more than two weeks ahead – that being the minimum notice the union must give for industrial action.