UK train drivers reignite industrial dispute
Sceptical rail travellers in the UK suspected their path was not clear. Only days after the principal union, the RMT, put its strike action on hold, the next biggest union in the rail industry, the drivers’ union has entered back into the fray. ASLEF, which represents almost 25,000 railway professionals in the driving cab, has announced a staggered series of strikes and an overtime ban for the first weeks of December. The news has been met with dismay, particularly from the hospitality and retail sectors, who say it will target the run-up to Christmas. The action will disrupt passenger services in many areas.
Much of the UK will see disruption to rail services in the first weeks of December. The strikes will take the form of a rolling programme of walkouts at passenger train operators in England. This new tactic differs from the previously established pattern of shorter but wider stoppages. In this latest action, ASLEF members will strike at different operators between Saturday 2 December and Friday 8 December with different passenger train companies affected on each day. There will also be an overall refusal to work overtime from Friday 1 December to Saturday 9 December. While freight services will be uninvolved, and safety staff (including signallers) will remain on duty, the passenger network will be significantly curtailed.
Railways still supported by taxpayers
ASLEF says train drivers haven’t had a pay increase since 2019. They say that their continued action is in the face of rising inflation, while pay remains static. “That’s a real-terms pay cut”, argues a statement from the union. “We are seeking a fair pay deal for our members who have been experiencing real terms pay cuts whilst private operators and rolling stock companies (who own the trains and lease them back) have continued to pay out dividends to their shareholders, extracting profits from the railways”. While the RMT is balloting members on a six-month suspension of industrial action, following a revised pay and conditions offer, the drivers’ union is pressing ahead with fresh action.
The employers’ representative body, Rail Delivery Group, has responded to ASLEF calling for further strikes, by calling them wholly unnecessary. “Strike action called by the ASLEF leadership will sadly disrupt customers and businesses ahead of the vital festive period”, said a spokesperson in reply. “[This action is] further damaging the railway at a time when it is still getting an extra 175 million pounds [over 200 million euro] a month in taxpayer cash. The fair and affordable offer made by the industry, which would take average driver base salaries for a four-day week from 60,000 pounds to nearly 65,000 pounds [69,500 – 75,500 euro], remains on the table. We urge the ASLEF leadership to put it to its members, give Christmas back to our passengers, and end this damaging industrial dispute.”
Rolling programme of walkouts
ASLEF has nearly 25,000 members working in the rail industry. Almost all of them are active train crew (drivers), and their withdrawal of labour is obviously a crippling blow to the industry. The previous pattern of action has been for the other big trade union in the industry, the RMT, and ASLEF to alternate days of action, which has put most of the network out of action for up to a week at a time. This time round, the planned action is different, with individual companies being targeted on different days, over a period of a week. An overtime ban is also in place for the period 1-9 December.
Multiple media sources have outlined ALSEF’s plan of action. Starting on Saturday 2 December, drivers will walk out at East Midlands Railway and LNER – connecting London with Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. On Sunday, 3 December, Avanti West Coast, Chiltern, Great Northern Thameslink, and West Midlands Trains will be affected. Tuesday 5 December will see the east of England operators C2C and Greater Anglia affected. On Wednesday 6 December, the industrial action moves to Southeastern, Southern/Gatwick Express, SWR main line, SWR depot drivers, and Island Line on the Isle of Wight. The widest area affected will be on Thursday 7 December, when drivers will walk out at CrossCountry and GWR, stopping trains from as far north as Aberdeen, and as far south as Penzance, as well as many services from Birmingham, London and Bristol. On Friday, the rolling programme of stoppages will affect Northern and TransPennine, hitting Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York, among other locations.
While the action is confined to passenger companies that predominantly serve England, many trains that cross the borders into Scotland and Wales will be affected. As has been the case throughout the long-running dispute, Northern Ireland is uninvolved.