Bri­tish com­muters face worst rail strike in decades

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Bri­tish com­muters faced travel chaos yes­ter­day as train driv­ers went on strike in what is ex­pected to be the worst rail dis­rup­tion in decades. South­ern Rail, which runs trains be­tween Eng­land’s south coast and Lon­don, warned of se­vere dis­rup­tion as it can­celled more than 2,000 ser­vices af­ter work­ers launched three days of in­dus­trial ac­tion.

Up to 1,000 driv­ers are in­volved in the strike which will af­fect around 300,000 pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing those trav­el­ling to Lon­don’s Gatwick air­port. A 48-hour walk­out be­gan at mid­night Mon­day with a fur­ther 24-hour strike planned for Fri­day and an­other six days of ac­tion in Jan­uary.

The long-run­ning dis­pute cen­tres on plans for “driver-only op­er­ated trains” which mean guards would no longer be re­quired to open and close train doors.

Union lead­ers have raised con­cerns about safety and pos­si­ble job losses, al­though the rail com­pany in­sists staffing lev­els will not be af­fected. A train worker at Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria sta­tion told AFP on con­di­tion of anonymity that the changes, which South­ern Rail says will free up guards to help pas­sen­gers and han­dle emer­gen­cies, con­sti­tute “a real cul­ture shock”.

Pas­sen­gers at the sta­tion gazed at blank de­par­tures boards early Mon­day as rail­way staff in flu­o­res­cent jack­ets of­fered ad­vice on al­ter­na­tive routes. Fu­ri­ous com­muter Clarence Quaicoe, run­ning late for work, told AFP: “Of course I’m up­set... I will have to take the un­der­ground where there are also se­vere de­lays.”

Pas­sen­gers on routes from Brighton and other key com­muter towns in south­ern Eng­land have al­ready faced months of dis­rup­tion to ser­vices in a se­ries of walk­outs that be­gan in April.

The lat­est strike comes af­ter the train op­er­a­tor’s own­ers, Govia Thames­link Rail­way, lost a le­gal bid to halt the ac­tion.

The shut­down is ex­pected to cause the worst dis­rup­tion on Bri­tain’s rail­ways since a se­ries of strikes by sig­nal work­ers in 1994.

South­ern Rail said it was “sin­cerely sorry” that trains were at a stand­still. “Th­ese strikes are wholly un­jus­ti­fied and we must find a way for­ward,” a com­pany spokesman said, ad­ding that it had in­vited union bosses to talks aimed at re­solv­ing the dis­pute. A re­duced ser­vice be­tween Vic­to­ria, a key sta­tion in cen­tral Lon­don, and Gatwick was run­ning ev­ery half hour, the train op­er­a­tor said.

Mick Whe­lan, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the train driv­ers’ union Aslef, said the union was pre­pared to ne­go­ti­ate but added: “It’s up to the com­pany, and the gov­ern­ment, to be flex­i­ble and end the mis­ery of com­muters.”

The gov­ern­ment, which is re­spon­si­ble for award­ing fran­chises to train op­er­at­ing com­pa­nies, is un­der mount­ing pres­sure to in­ter­vene in the dis­pute. “Do­ing noth­ing to help South­ern rail com­muters is no longer an op­tion” for the gov­ern­ment, said Lon­don mayor Sadiq Khan in a post on Twit­ter. Khan sug­gested that Trans­port for Lon­don, which runs the cap­i­tal’s Tube, would be bet­ter placed to op­er­ate the south­ern English rail ser­vices.

Bri­tain’s trans­port min­is­ter Chris Grayling called it a “com­pletely fu­tile, point­less strike” and said his of­fers to in­ter­vene had been ig­nored.

He told BBC’s Ra­dio 4 that he did not agree with the ac­tion but: “I don’t have the power to or­der peo­ple back to work. This is a law­ful strike.” In an emo­tional mes­sage on Face­book, com­muter Jenny Le­hane told law­mak­ers: “I am writ­ing this on a bus with tears streaming down my face at the ut­ter fail­ure of our MPs and gov­ern­ment to do any­thing to stop this com­pletely in­tol­er­a­ble fail­ure... to run the ser­vice that my fares and taxes are pay­ing for”.

The rail walk­out comes af­ter Post Of­fice work­ers also voted Mon­day to strike in a row over job cuts, clo­sures and pen­sions. The five days of strikes next week by mem­bers of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers Union will hit postal ser­vices dur­ing their busiest pe­riod in the run up to Christmas. —AFP

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