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What To Do When There’s A Train Strike

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During any sort of strike, you may find yourself searching for alternatives or waiting until the strike is over before patronizing a business or using the services of a particular industry. However, transportation, such as flights or trains, gets tricky.

Things can get complicated when you’re traveling and rail workers decide to strike. How do you deal with a rail strike that may impact a substantial part of your trip? Many train operators and labor unions must provide notices, which can help find alternate routes.

Notice periods for train strikes vary by country, with the US requiring a 30-day cooling-off period after mediation fails and European countries mandating different minimum notice periods. In the United Kingdom, train operators must give at least 14 days’ notice before any strike occurs.

This legal requirement ensures passengers have sufficient time to make alternative travel arrangements and allows for potential negotiations between unions and train companies to resolve disputes.

Do you need to rent a car? Should you try to ride the trains anyway? Is a strike enough to require a total change of your itinerary or travel dates? Let’s dig into what happens during a rail strike and what you must do when rail strikes impact your travel plans.

Why Are There Train Strikes?

Trains stop at the platforms in Kings Cross train station
I-Wei Huang / Adobe Stock

Workers in a union may strike when they dispute with their employer, a train company. Railway workers may seek a pay raise, or baggage handlers may push for greater benefits from their employer.

In some cases, workers may even have a dispute with their union leaders, which may result in a strike. Here are several reasons train strikes happen:

Reason Description
Pay Disputes Disagreements between rail workers and employers regarding wages, salaries, or pay structure.
Working Conditions Concerns about safety, work hours, rest periods, or other aspects of the work environment.
Benefits Issues related to health insurance, pension plans, vacation time, or other employee benefits.
Union Conflicts Disputes between rail unions and management regarding collective bargaining agreements or union representation.
Job Security Strikes may occur in response to layoffs, outsourcing, or other threats to employment stability.
Privatization Opposition to government plans to privatize state-owned rail systems or services.
Technological Changes Resistance to the implementation of new technologies that may impact jobs or work processes.

Whatever the reason for the strike, travelers may encounter delays or cancellations of train services or routes.

See Related: Useful Tips for Long-Distance Train Travel

When Will a Train Strike Occur?

Busy Prague Main Train Station
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

There are no specific months or days when you can expect a train strike; however, unions typically announce rail strikes well before the strike dates, giving them more time to find a compromise. Train companies may publish notices on their website about impending strikes, or you may hear about them in the news.

Some of the longest and fiercest strikes in the world have occurred within the rail system. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 lasted almost six months and involved 200,000 rail workers. The long-running dispute was a protest against low pay, long hours, and unsafe working conditions.

France, in particular, is a nation extremely familiar with rail strikes. Regular services are often canceled due to industrial action.

See Related: Riding the Eurostar from Paris to London after Brexit

Does All Travel Cease For Train Strikes?

Train Station in Zwolle, Netherlands
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

As long as you know the strike before your travel dates, you should have ample opportunity to make alternate plans. The entirety of the rail system likely won’t grind to a halt, but you could encounter some stations without any operating trains.

For example, suppose you’re in London during an Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) union strike and need to get to Gatwick Airport. In that case, you may need to see if buses are running between London and Gatwick since the train between Victoria Station and the airport might offer no or limited service on strike day.

But you might have to resort to a ride share if other transportation systems go on sympathy strikes along with a London Overground or tube strike.

See Related: Eurail Pass Review: Is It Worth the Price?

What If Strike Action Impacts Your Train Plans?

A packed crowd of diverse commuters and travelers at a London train station with digital boards, after the cessation of a transport strike.
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

It’s not impossible to get around during an industrial action or strike by a railroad union, but you may find your scheduled trains significantly delayed or impacted by canceled services. You may have bought your tickets months ahead, which is great for getting tickets at a discount, but what happens if the train operator cancels your ride?

Here are several options for getting around if a train strike occurs:

Alternative Description Pros Cons
Buses Long-distance coach services or local bus routes Generally cheaper than trains, more routes available Longer travel times, less comfort, limited luggage space
Ride-sharing Services Apps like Uber, Lyft, or BlaBlaCar for shared rides Door-to-door service, flexibility, can be cost-effective for groups Surge pricing during high demand, limited availability in some areas
Rental Cars Renting a vehicle for self-driven travel Flexibility, comfort, ability to carry more luggage Higher costs (rental, fuel, parking), requires a valid driver’s license
Flights Domestic or short-haul international flights Fastest travel option, less impacted by strikes More expensive than trains, limited routes, airport security checks
Carpooling Sharing a private vehicle with other travelers Cost-sharing, sociable, door-to-door service Requires coordination, depends on personal schedules and preferences
Cycling Using bicycles for shorter distances or in cities Eco-friendly, affordable, flexible Limited to shorter distances, weather-dependent, requires own or rented bike

Contact Your Travel Insurance Provider

Anyone on the calendar for an international trip must have travel insurance. Here at ViaTravelers, we like SafetyWing and AIG Travel Guard. You can find a good policy and compare rates at TravelInsurance.com, too.

It’s so important to have travel insurance because most policies will cover trip interruption, and rail strikes generally fall under that umbrella. So check in with your provider and see about some compensation!

Be Prepared To Change Plans On The Fly

Hopefully, you’re aware of the strike ahead of time and have the opportunity to make changes to your travel plans if necessary. However, if you don’t learn about the strike until you land or arrive, you could find yourself experiencing some serious travel disruption.

Consider the recent strike in Italy in the summer of 2023, when the state-run Trenitalia system experienced a strike. Even though representatives of the privately-run Italo high-speed train system told travelers that their trains would run despite the Trenitalia strike, travelers in Rome were dismayed that the cancellations were much more widespread, according to an article from the Associated Press.

Check Local Media and Rail Operators

The best way to avoid disruption to your trip during a strike is to be aware of the planned strike dates ahead of time. Some countries, like Italy, experience work stoppages pretty regularly. If you do your research, you’ll still receive some notice about the action before it happens.

If you’re traveling to a country where workers strike frequently, check whether a strike is planned during travel dates. You can check for potential disruptions by visiting operator websites like Network Rail in the UK, which hosts a page on its website with information about planned strikes.

Check Third-Party Sites to Potentially Rebook

Some booking and external sites, like Trainline, post information about disruptions in various countries. For example, they maintain an informative page with disruption information covering the UK rail network (and publish other pages for different railways and other countries, too). Those websites may even offer resources for rebooking or changing your ticket.

Hang On to Your Tickets!

If you decide to change your plans and take the bus rather than a train, don’t assume your train ticket is useless. The train operator may offer a full refund if their company policy indicates that passengers are eligible for refunds in case of a strike or service cancellation.

Should you pursue a full refund to rebook another ticket using a different mode of transportation, remember to do a little comparison shopping, even if you need your tickets immediately.

Check rates for various types of travel on aggregate websites like Kayak and Momondo so you can potentially reduce the cost of last-minute reservations.

Contact the Rail Operator

Also, don’t shy away from asking for help from your train operator. You should have access to some customer service representatives via phone or at the station, even if the unions are striking. Remember, the workers aren’t mad at you!

FAQ

Can you still travel on strike days?

Not all trains grind to a halt on strike dates. A transportation strike may impact overall rail services, resulting in fewer trains running or reduced services. During train strikes, you remain entitled to the benefits granted through your ticket purchase, whether compensation is a ticket refund or riding with a different train company.

Do strikes mean all trains are canceled?

The severity of the schedule disruption depends on the scope, location, and which rail workers are striking. For example, a strike by ASLEF in the UK could impact more than a dozen rail lines across Great Britain, forcing travelers to choose alternative methods of transport like renting cars.

What if my train is canceled, and I can’t get home?

Train cancellations don’t mean you’ll need to take a financial hit and buy an entirely new ticket. In most cases, you can take the next train to your destination. The train company may sometimes offer alternative transport to affected passengers, including bus travel or shuttles.

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