York station with sunrise light shining through canopy on to platforms

Many UK trains grind to a halt in four days of strike actions

York station with sunrise light shining through the canopy on to platforms Rail Delivery Group

London commuters may be forgiven for feeling it was still full-on dispute mode. Services of the Underground were curtailed by a widespread stoppage yesterday. Today, and on Saturday, it’s the turn of surface railways to grind to a halt. Action by the trades union RMT, has halted services at almost all of the passenger train operators in Britain. Fourteen operators running eighteen branded networks, all headquartered in England, remain in dispute over pay, conditions and job security issues.

Thursday (16 March) is the first of four more days of planned strike action on the British rail network. Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) are taking action in their long running dispute with the industry. Only services operated within Scotland and Wales are running normally – where the devolved governments there have responsibility for transport matters, and have reached settlements. Northern Ireland has remained aloof from the dispute.

Network Rail accord benefits Scotland and Wales

Emphasising the disparity between the nations, ScotRail – the brand name for the passenger operations managed by the government in Edinburgh – has confirmed that its services are running as normal. It’s much the same at Transport for Wales (TfW) where a similar administration is in place. The immunity to disruption is only possible because RMT has agreed to ballot its members at the infrastructure agency Network Rail. That allows safety critical staff, including signallers, to work as normal throughout Great Britain.

A Class 175 diesel multiple unit stands at Cardiff Central station
In Wales, cross-border trains are generally not running to England, but domestic traffic is unaffected by strike action. A Class 175 diesel multiple unit stands at Cardiff Central station (image: Transport for Wales)

“The RMT’s planned strike action by its members at Network Rail [on Thursday, 16 March 2023] as well as an overtime ban over the coming weeks have been suspended to allow a referendum on a new pay offer from Network Rail to take place”, said a statement from David Simpson, ScotRail Service Delivery Director. “Planned strike action by RMT members of fourteen other train operators – [today] on Thursday, 16 March, as well as on Saturday, 18 March, Thursday, 30 March, and Saturday, 1 April – is still scheduled to take place but will not have any impact on ScotRail services”, he said.

Operators and unions talking and not talking

The eighteen branded networks, managed by those fourteen operators, are effectively at a standstill once again. To say that the British public has become accustomed to “trainless” days is an overstatement. However, the overall effect of strike action is diminishing as travellers learn to defer their plans. It may be a more difficult task for freight operators but, since none of them are directly involved in the almost year-long dispute, the tracks are largely free for the seventy per cent of freight traffic that manages to operate around strike days.

A ground level shot of an approaching class 66 diesel hauling a heavy load of tankers
Tanks for the clear way. With almost all passenger services suspended, most freight is able to run on a virtually deserted network 

The representative body for the operators, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has previously invited the RMT to discussions on the current dispute but on the condition that the strike action today and on Saturday (18 March) was suspended. “The RMT decided that the scheduled action will remain in place but that the union will be available for discussions and will attend any meetings on creating a resolution to the dispute through an improved offer”, said their statement.

“This latest round of strikes will be a further inconvenience to our customers”, said Steve Montgomery, Chair of the Rail Delivery Group. “They will also be asking why the RMT leadership blocked the chance to resolve this dispute by refusing to give their members, many of whom would have benefited from a 13 per cent increase, a say on their own deal.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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