What are the UK rail strikes about and how long will they go on?

After last-minute talks to avert them failed on Monday, the rail strikes that got under way this morning will be the biggest in the UK for more than 30 years. (Here’s how the Guardian covered the last one, which ended with an 8.8% pay rise for rail workers.) As well as the 24-hour walkouts by members of the RMT union – happening on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday – a separate London Underground strike is happening in the capital on Tuesday.

The RMT strike involves 40,000 signallers, maintenance and train staff working for Network Rail – which is responsible for infrastructure such as track, stations and level crossings – and 13 train operators. Here are more details on train operators’ advice for strike days. And here is a special timetable for the duration of the strikes, as well as links for more information on each affected operator.

Services started to reduce last night – but the full force of the strikes will be felt on Tuesday and throughout the week. About 4,500 services will run on Tuesday compared with the 20,000 that would normally be expected.

About half of all rail lines will be closed completely and the timetable will start later and finish earlier than usual, running from 7.30am to 6.30pm. Services in Scotland and Wales will be severely affected despite operators not being directly involved because they rely on Network Rail staff to function.

The impact is also expected to run into Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday – non-strike days – because overnight maintenance work will not take place ahead of the usual timetable. There are knock-on effects on other forms of transport, with warnings of overcrowding on buses and greatly increased motorway traffic.

Anyone whose journey is cancelled should be able to receive a refund or exchange for an alternative route – but check with the relevant train company first (here is a helpful set of links on refund policies). The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has also said the government will make sure season ticket holders are eligible for “full compensation”.

National Rail says train companies should provide alternative means of transportation or overnight accommodation if necessary – but will not cover taxis or hotel bills; some, including GWR, are not offering rail replacement buses. More details on all of this are available here.

Pay and conditions. Commuter habits that changed over lockdown have not fully returned to normal, meaning revenues have been reduced. The industry says it needs to act to reach a “sustainable footing”.

Meanwhile, the RMT says Network Rail is threatening to cut safety-critical jobs (Network Rail rejects that characterisation) as part of its modernisation programme, which would also include an increase in working hours. And with inflation soaring, the union is asking for a pay rise that mitigates the pain for its members. Against an inflation rate heading towards 11%, the union wants a rise of 7% and has already rejected a Network Rail offer of a 2% rise with a further 1% tied to job cuts.

They argue that the railways were subsidised to the tune of £16bn during the pandemic, and that with annual running costs at £20bn and income from fares just £4bn, the union’s demands are not feasible. Network Rail says modernisation is essential to keep the system on its feet, and says that, for example, the maintenance of ticket offices with very few customers when an automated option could be used instead is “frankly Victorian”.

Meanwhile, the government is making good on threats to remove some of the protections set out in law for striking workers – starting with the acceleration of plans to scrap a legal ban on using agency workers to limit the impact of future industrial action, an incendiary move.

Shapps has pointed to median train-driver salaries of £59,000 as evidence that a pay deal would be unmerited. And the government has made a wider argument for pay restraint: Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said on Monday that workers must show “collective, society-wide responsibility” to “forestall the evil of inflation”. (Here’s a useful piece explaining why that argument is more controversial than Clarke makes it sound.)

For a sense of the level of hostilities, watch this testy Newsnight clip in which the RMT’s Mick Lynch calls the minister Chris Philp a liar. The RMT points out that most train drivers are not part of this dispute – and says the true median salary for its members is about £33,000, a figure supported by this BBC analysis.

The union says members deserved recognition for work that “kept the country moving through the pandemic”, and argues that they are simply seeking to protect their existing terms and minimise the real-term pay cut caused by inflation.

Labour, meanwhile, has adopted a variety of positions over the strikes, and frustrated unions with its lukewarm support. Frontbenchers tend to argue that they do not want them to happen, but that they are ultimately the government’s fault. They point out that Shapps has not taken part in negotiations.

But unions and their allies within Labour were dismayed by another story that broke last night: PoliticsHome reported that Keir Starmer’s office ordered the shadow cabinet to stay away from picket lines. “To instruct Labour MPs not to be on picket lines with workers speaks volumes,” said the Unite general secretary, Sharon Graham. “It’s time to decide whose side you are on. Workers or bad bosses?”

The strikes may go on for some time – and as the cost of living bites more widely, they will only spread across the public sector. The RMT has suggested that strikes on the railways could continue until Christmas. Train drivers represented by Aslef are also expected to strike soon – and teachers and NHS workers could take industrial action too. On Monday, criminal barristers voted to go on strike over legal aid funding, which could see them walk out from next week. (Here is a summary of some of the possible impacts.) If all that comes to pass, this week’s rail strikes may soon look like a relatively minor inconvenience.





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