Train strikes: Will there be more walkouts after latest March and April dates called off?
The latest round of national rail strikes has ended halfway through, with the RMT union calling off the walk-outs due to take place on Thursday 30 March and Saturday 1 April. Rail services should now run normally, with the full range of fares available.
But the RMT insists it remains in dispute with 14 train operators over pay, job guarantees and working arrangements.
Last Thursday and Saturday, more than 10,000 trains per day were cancelled when thousands of members of the RMT stopped work once again in a long and bitter dispute that has dragged on since June 2022.
The union’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, dismissed a previous proposal from the employers, which was contingent on a wide range of changes to working practices, as a “dreadful offer”. He insisted instead on a no-strings pay deal and vowed that the strikes would continue as long as necessary.
So what has changed? These are the key questions and answers.
Who has been striking and for how long?
Rail services have been disrupted by RMT strikes for nine months. On 21 June 2022, tens of thousands of members of the main rail union, the RMT, walked out at the beginning of what turned out to be a long series of national rail strikes – the first since the 1980s.
The union has been involved in two separate disputes. One is with Network Rail, the state-owned infrastructure provider, which maintains and operates the railway system.
The other is with the 14 operators contracted by the Department for Transport (DfT) to run trains.
Often both groups of union members have been on strike at the same time, leading to the cancellation of four out of five trains.
On Monday 20 March 2023, the RMT union announced that members had voted 76:24 in favour of a deal offered by Network Rail. It is worth at least 9.2 per cent in increased pay over two years, plus an expanded discount travel scheme, in return for some productivity improvements.
The union says an agreement has now been reached and the Network Rail dispute is now over.
What about the quarrel with train operators?
When the Network Rail settlement was announced, Mick Lynch insisted: “Our dispute with the train operating companies remains firmly on.
“Our members’ recent highly effective strike action across the 14 train companies has shown their determination to secure a better deal.”
His union has been demanding “an unconditional pay offer, a job security agreement and no detrimental changes being imposed on members terms, conditions and working practices”.
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train operators, said its offer to train operator staff was similar to that offered by Network Rail and accepted by a large majority of union members.
The RDG asked that the proposal be put to a vote of union members. But the RMT said it had carried out “an in-depth consultation of our 40,000 members” and that the offer had been firmly rejected.
What has changed?
Train operators ran about half of normal services during this month’s national walk-outs – a higher proportion than on previous strike days. The employers say many union members have decided to ignore the instruction to stop work.
They have been offered a minimum pay rise of 5 per cent for 2022 and 4 per cent for this year (with additional increases for lower-paid staff). The transport secretary, Mark Harper, who will ultimately sign off an agreement, described it as a “best and final” offer.
This proposal was dismissed as “dreadful” by Mick Lynch. But on Wednesday evening the RMT union said: “Following further talks between RMT and the Rail Delivery Group today, a proposal was tabled by the RDG which could lead to a resolution to resolve the current national rail dispute through a new offer.
“The NEC [National Executive Committee] has therefore suspended strike action scheduled for 30 March and 1 April.
“RMT will have further talks with the RDG with a view to securing a new offer on pay, job security and working conditions.”
Last time a strike was called off, disruption continued. Will that happen this time?
No. In October, a planned strike covering almost a week was called off with a few hours’ notice, but tens of thousands of trains were still cancelled.
The timing of the latest RMT announcement is significant: with a week’s notice, it allows train operators time to restore their full timetables.
What do the employers and ministers say?
A Rail Delivery Group spokesperson said: “We welcome this positive step by the leadership of the RMT to call off their planned action on 30 March and 1 April.
“We are now jointly focused on working constructively towards a settlement to this dispute, which will mean we can do what we have always wanted to do – give our people a pay rise and help secure the long-term future of the railway with rewarding careers for all those who work on it.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “This marks a positive step and takes us closer to resolving this dispute.
“After Network Rail employees overwhelmingly voted to accept a similar pay offer earlier this week, we’re once again asking the RMT executive to do the right thing and put this fair and reasonable offer to its members, giving them the pay rise they deserve and helping us end this dispute.”
Is it all over?
Not according to the union. The RMT says: “The dispute remains on and the union will continue to make preparations for a re-ballot [for industrial action] when the current mandates runs out in mid-May.”
But The Independent understands that talks aimed at reaching a deal that can be put to RMT members are at an advanced stage, and that a referendum will be announced by the union shortly.
A rail industry insider said: “The RDG is betting that the union members are disillusioned and financially drained after months of strikes, and will gladly accept the offer.”
What about the train drivers?
They are still in dispute about pay with train operators who are contracted by the government. Train drivers belonging to the Aslef union staged their eighth walk-out earlier this year. The train drivers are also demanding a no-strings offer.
But The Independent understands talks are proceeding positively through the auspices of the Rail Industry Recovery Group and that the sides are inching towards a deal.
The settlement will involve a basic pay rise of 7 per cent or slightly more, with extra payments for accepting modernisation such as incorporating Sunday into the working week where this does not yet happen.
What effect have the strikes had?
RMT members have been instructed to strike on at least 18 days in the past nine months (the walk-outs have been slightly different for Network Rail and train operator members). A typical worker has lost around £2,000 in pay.
The Office for National Statistics estimates 2.5 million working days have been lost as a result of the strikes, while UK Hospitality says businesses have lost £2.5bn in the past nine months due to industrial action on the railway.
Can travellers now book future journeys with confidence?
I believe so – subject to the everyday problems that afflict the UK’s railways even when no one is on strike.