UK train strike misery as Rishi Sunak tries to avert future industrial action

Key Heathrow and Gatwick services not running

Passengers stand outside the locked gates at the entrance to Southfields underground station in south London waiting for the first train of the day. PA
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Rail strikes will cripple the UK network for the travelling public on Thursday as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks at new legislation to discourage industrial action in key sectors.

Two major rail unions are in disputes over pay, leaving few if any trains running on strike days.

Industrial action is also being taken by nurses, ambulance crew, airport staff and bus drivers amid a cost-of living crisis in which inflation topped 10 per cent but pay offers largely stayed well below that level.

On Thursday, it is the train drivers from the Aslef union walking out. On Friday and Saturday, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union resumes its industrial action.

For travellers, it has cut train services by up to 80 per cent.

Mr Sunak is poised to announce as early as Thursday his plans for new legislation to curb strikes, The Times reported late on Wednesday.

He wants legislation that enforces "minimum service levels" in six sectors, including health, rail, and border security, and that cover many of the high-profile strikes taking place this winter.

His plan would require a proportion of union members to continue working to retain a "minimum level" of service.

“This legislation will remove the legal immunity for strikes where unions fail to implement a minimum level of service,” a government source told The Times.

"The strikes will be illegal. Ultimately, people could be fired for breach of contract."

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan warned it was "inevitable" that further strikes would be held unless there was a breakthrough to the long-running dispute.

Mr Whelan said strikes could escalate, saying train drivers wanted to go "harder and faster" after years of not receiving a pay rise.

"The situation is getting worse and my members now want to go harder and faster because of the lack of progress,” he said.

"We are in a weird world where the government will do anything to keep private companies in the industry. It is inevitable that more strikes will be held and probably escalate.

"The train companies say their hands have been tied by the government, while the government — which does not employ us — says it's up to the companies to negotiate with us.

"We are always happy to negotiate, we never refuse to sit down at the table and talk, but these companies have offered us nothing, and that is unacceptable."

Among the operators which will run no trains all day on Thursday are Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Northern, Southern, Southeastern, Thameslink and TransPennine Express.

Rail links to the UK's two busiest airports will be cut, with Gatwick Express and Heathrow Express shutting down.

Areas where trains will run on Thursday include: Wales; the Central Belt, Fife and the Borders of Scotland; and parts of the South Western Railway network.

Services will also operate on London Overground and the Elizabeth line.

About 20 per cent of normal services will run, according to the Rail Delivery Group.

Companies affected by the strike are Avanti West Coast; Chiltern Railways; CrossCountry; East Midlands Railway; Great Western Railway; Greater Anglia; GTR Great Northern Thameslink; London North Eastern Railway; Northern Trains; Southeastern; Southern/Gatwick Express; South Western Railway (depot drivers only); SWR Island Line; TransPennine Express; and West Midlands Trains.

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Updated: January 05, 2023, 8:03 AM