The effect is exacerbated by a nine-day ban on overtime running from 29 January to 6 February.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, says some members have not had a pay rise for five years – and ministers have refused to engage with the union for 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.”
Rail minister Huw Merriman told The Independent: “Strikes just hold the railway back. 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 paid an average £60,000 for a 35-hour, four-day week, That pay deal would take them up to £65,000.
“We hope that they will take the opportunity to take it. Then we can all talk about the positives of rail.”
Separately, the 14 train operators have reached a tentative agreement with the RMT union that has put an end to walk-outs while talks continue on a local level. But the RMT has called two 48-hour strikes in February and March on the London Overground.
These are the key questions and answers.
Which rail firms are affected?
Aslef is in dispute with the train operators that are contracted by the government to provide rail services. They are:
Avanti West Coast
East Midlands Railway
Great Western Railway (GWR)
Southeast England commuter operators:
GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink)
South Western Railway (including the Island Line on the Isle of Wight)
Operators focusing on the Midlands and north of England:
West Midlands Railway
ScotRail, Transport for Wales, Transport for London (including the Elizabeth Line), Merseyrail and “open-access” operators such as Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo are not involved. But their services are likely to be extremely crowded on stretches where they duplicate strike-hit companies.
What is the strike schedule?
Monday 29 January: overtime ban begins.
Tuesday 30 January: South Western Railway, Southeastern and GTR (Southern, Gatwick Express, Great Northern and Thameslink).
Wednesday 31 January: Northern and TransPennine Express.
Thursday 1 February: no strike but overtime ban continues.
Friday 2 February: Greater Anglia, C2C and LNER.
Saturday 3 February: West Midlands Trains, Avanti West Coast and East Midlands Railway.
Sunday 4 February: no strike but overtime ban continues.
Monday 5 February: Great Western, CrossCountry and Chiltern.
Tuesday 6 February: no strike but overtime ban continues for a final day.
What are the likely effects of the strikes?
These predictions are based on latest statements from rail firms and The Independent’s observation of previous strikes. They should be confirmed before travel.
Great Northern (30 January): Shuttle service calling at London Kings Cross and Cambridge only (and probably branded Thameslink) with limited operating hours.
Thameslink (30 January): Shuttle service calling at St Pancras, Luton Airport Parkway and Luton only. The firm says its trains “will be extremely busy” and that queueing systems will be in place.
“You may not be able to board your chosen service,” says Thameslink. “If you are planning to travel on one of the last trains of the day, please be aware that, depending on the size of the queue, you may not be able to board a service at all, and no alternative transport options will be provided after the last train departs. Please plan ahead and leave plenty of time to reach your destination.”
Southern (30 January): No trains except a nonstop shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport, from 6am to 11.30pm.
Gatwick Express (30 January): The Southern airport shuttle, above, is doing the work.
Southeastern (30 January): No trains.
South Western Railway (30 January): The service is relatively extensive compared with other train operators.
Up to four stopping trains per hour between London Waterloo and Woking.
Hourly semi-fast trains between Waterloo and both Guildford and Basingstoke. A shuttle will run from Basingstoke to Salisbury every 90 minutes.
Two trains per hour will also run between Waterloo and Feltham via Richmond and Twickenham. No trains on the Isle of Wight.
Northern (31 January): No trains. The operator says that it expects two key routes to be very busy on 3 February when East Midlands Railway is on strike: Leeds-Sheffield-Nottingham and Sheffield-Manchester.
TransPennine Express (31 January): No trains. “There will be some alterations to evening services on Tuesday 30 January and to early morning services on Thursday 1 February,” the company says.
C2C (2 February): No trains. The company warns: “Upminster car park will likely become full and close early in the day.” Upminster is the eastern end of the District Line of the London Underground, which will be running normally.
Greater Anglia (2 February): Limited service linking London Liverpool Street with Norwich, Ipswich and Colchester; Southend Victoria; Cambridge; and Stansted airport.
LNER (2 February): Regular trains on core routes linking London King’s Cross with Doncaster, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. First trains will depart at around 8am, with most journeys finished by 7pm. Leeds will have a limited direct service, but connections are available from Doncaster.
Avanti West Coast (3 February): No trains. The operator says: “Services on the days either side of the strike will also be affected.”
East Midlands Railway (3 February): No trains. The train firm warns: “No rail replacement bus services will be provided. Other train operators may be running a reduced service due to an overtime ban.”
West Midlands Railway (3 February): No trains, and a warning that services on Sunday 4 February will see widespread delays and cancellations.
Chiltern (5 February): No trains either on the strike day or on the previous day, Sunday 4 February, as the train operator is dependent on drivers working overtime on Sunday to operate any trains at all. The overtime ban means no services will run.
CrossCountry (5 February): No trains.
Great Western Railway (5 February): On the actual strike day, a core service will run between London Paddington and Oxford, Bath and Bristol, with a link from Bristol to Cardiff. A limited service on branch lines in Devon and Cornwall. The Night Riviera sleeper service from London to Penzance will not run for a number of nights.
In addition to the disruption on strike days, trains on adjacent days may be affected. Services on these days are also likely to be extremely busy due to passengers moving their journeys to avoid industrial action.
What about the new minimum service levels law?
Legislation now allows the transport secretary to stipulate minimum service levels (MSLs) on strike days amounting to 40 per cent of the normal service. The government says the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 aims “to ensure that the public can continue to access services that they rely on, during strike action.”
No train operator is seeking to impose the new law on the train drivers’ union. LNER said it might do so, and opened consultations, at which point Aslef called a separate five-day strike on LNER alone. Then the train operator said it would not require drivers to work, and the strike was called off.
The BBC reports that the prime minister is disappointed that train operators had not implemented minimum service levels. A Downing Street spokesperson said: “Yes, it’s something that we and the public expect them to use.
“We’ve been repeatedly been clear that this legislation is available for train operators to use.”
The Transport Select Committee has previously warned of potential unintended consequences of the legislation. The Conservative chair, Iain Stewart, said: “There is a risk of MSLs worsening worker-employer relations and that, as a result, MSLs could end up making services less reliable.”
The minimum service level rules do not apply to union bans on non-contractual rest-day working.
Is there a ‘worst day’?
Yes. In terms of sheer number of passengers hit, Tuesday 30 January is the most disruptive. It is aimed at commuters in southeast England, the majority of whom use the affected train operators. Normally Southern, Thameslink, Great Northern, South Western Railway and Southeastern carry around 40 per cent of all passengers.
Intercity travellers will be worst affected on Friday 2 and Saturday 3 February, when the main operators on the East Coast and West Coast main lines, plus the Midland main line, will be hit.
Sunday 4 February is also likely to be severely disrupted mainly because of the ban on rest-day working. Chiltern Railway, which would normally run trains between London and Birmingham, says no services will run at all due to the overtime ban.
Disruption will be heightened by 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.
What will be the wider impact of the overtime ban?
The overtime ban alone will cause thousands of cancellations. 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”.
Sunday is still not part of the working week at a number of train operators, so 4 February will be particularly disrupted by the ban on rest-day working.
GWR says: “There will be significant disruption to services and customers should travel on alternative days. No trains will operate on long-distance routes between London Paddington and Bristol, South Wales and Exeter/Plymouth/Penzance.”
Several rail firms have announced pre-emptive cancellations due to the previous overtime ban, as follows:
C2C: “Severely reduced service” at weekends, with many trains also cut on weekdays.
Chiltern: Significantly reduced service on most routes, with no trains at all on some branch lines. “Services on all routes will finish earlier than usual.” No trains will run on Sunday 4 February.
Gatwick Express: No trains during the overtime ban. Southern trains will link London Victoria and Gatwick airport throughout the industrial action.
London Northwestern Railway/West Midlands Railway: Branch lines between Bletchley and Bedford, Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, and Leamington Spa and Nuneaton, will be closed on most or all days.
Southern: “An amended timetable with fewer services will run. Services may start later and finish earlier than usual.”
Thameslink warns: “A reduced frequency amended timetable will be in operation.”
Some trains may restrict either boarding or leaving trains at certain stations to avoid overcrowding.
What if I need to reach an airport?
London Heathrow will remain accessible at all times on the Heathrow Express, the Elizabeth Line and the Tube.
Passengers using London Gatwick will be significantly affected on the first day of strikes, Tuesday 30 January, when no Gatwick Express nor Thameslink trains will run. But passengers between London and Gatwick will be able to travel on a Southern shuttle service, nonstop between Victoria and the airport. The GWR link from Gatwick to Redhill, Guildford and Reading will run normally on 30 January but not on 5 February.
London Stansted will have an hourly skeleton service from the capital on Tuesday 2 February, with “service alterations” on all the other days of the overtime ban. The link to Norwich will be axed on 2 February, but CrossCountry trains to Cambridge (and on to Birmingham) will still run. On 5 February, though, no CrossCountry trains will run to Stansted airport or anywhere else.
Luton airport will remain accessible by rail, at least from London, on all days: on the Thameslink strike day, 30 January, Thameslink will have a reduced service from London St Pancras to Luton Airport Parkway. In addition, the East Midlands Railway link will be running. On 3 February, when no East Midlands Railway services are likely to run, Thameslink will be operating.
Southend airport: hourly trains on Friday 2 February with restricted hours.
Southampton airport will not be served by South Western Railway on Tuesday 30 January nor by CrossCountry on Monday 5 February.
Manchester airport will have a drastically reduced rail service on Wednesday 31 January. With Northern and TransPennine Express drivers on strike, there will be only an hourly link on Transport for Wales to and from central Manchester, Chester and North Wales.
Birmingham airport is likely to be inaccessible by rail on Saturday 3 February, except for Transport for Wales from Birmingham New Street.
Will Eurostar be affected?
No. Trains will continue to run as normal between London St Pancras International and Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. But connecting journeys will be difficult on strike days – particularly Tuesday 30 January, when Thameslink and Southeastern are out, and on Saturday 3 February when no East Midlands Railway services are likely to run.
What does Aslef say?
In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said: “When we get to February, it’ll be half a decade without a pay rise. What do we do? Do we do nothing?
“The only thing that is going to get us out of this is a clean deal.”
Without an agreement, he says: “It’s going to get messier. It’s going to get worse.”
What do the rail firms say?
A spokesperson for Rail Delivery Group, representing the train operators, said: “There are no winners from these strikes that will unfortunately cause disruption for our customers. We believe rail can have a bright future, but right now taxpayers are contributing an extra £54m a week to keep services running post-Covid.
“Aslef’s leadership need to recognise the financial challenge facing rail. Drivers have been made an offer which would take base salaries to nearly £65,000 for a four-day week before overtime – that is well above the national average and significantly more than many of our customers that have no option to work from home are paid.
“Instead of staging more damaging industrial action, we call on the Aslef leadership to work with us to resolve this dispute and deliver a fair deal which both rewards our people, and makes the changes needed to make services more reliable.”What does the government say?
What does the government say?
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “It’s very disappointing to see Aslef continuing to target those who travel to work, school or important medical appointments by train.
“Aslef is now the only rail union that is continuing to strike while refusing to put a fair and reasonable offer to its members. The offer that remains on the table and would bring the average train driver’s salary up to £65,000.
“The Aslef leadership should do the right thing and let their members decide their own future, instead of deciding it for them.”
What does the Labour Party say it would do if elected?
Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said: “It is a staggering dereliction of duty that the transport secretary hasn’t got around the table with the unions to try to resolve it since the Christmas before last.
“Labour will take an unashamedly different approach to the Tories, and will work with both sides to reach a deal in the interests of passengers and workers. If the transport secretary took this sensible approach then perhaps we wouldn’t still be having strikes on our railways.”
The shadow rail minister, Stephen Morgan MP, has previously said: “Labour will bring our railways back into public ownership, as contracts expire, and ensure services work in the interests of the passenger.”
What are the London Overground strikes about?
Pay. More than 300 members of the RMT will stage two 48-hour walkouts on the London Overground on Mondays and Tuesdays two weeks apart: 19-20 February 2024 and 4-5 March 2024. Among those taking action are security, station, revenue and control staff.
The RMT said that Arriva Rail London, which has the contract for London Overground, has offered a below inflation pay offer.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, said: “If this dispute cannot be resolved then RMT is more than prepared for a sustained period of industrial action to get London Overground workers the pay rise they deserve.”
The Independent has contacted the Department for Transport and Arriva Rail London for comment.