The RMT union has announced 27 days of strikes on South Western Railway will go ahead from Monday, dashing hopes that last-minute talks would prevent disruption on the UK’s second biggest commuter network.
Talks broke down on Thursday afternoon, with the RMT saying the company “point-blank refused” to meet its demands and South Western accusing the union of “changing its position”.
The announcement confirms plans revealed earlier this month for the walkout of nearly 900 guards and 40 drivers.
South Western serves around 600,000 daily passenger trips on routes between London and the south-west, including Bristol, Reading Weymouth and Portsmouth.
The Christmas period shutdown is the longest strike in four years of disputes between RMT and the operator, with past actions forcing South Western to cut up to half of timetabled services.
The dispute concerns the role of guards on trains, with South Western planning to shift the responsibility for closing train doors from conductors to drivers.
The union argues that the move reduced the guard to “little more than a passenger” and puts the role at risk of being axed, which it says will compromise passenger safety.
“RMT is angry and frustrated that a set of proposals that would have guaranteed the safety-critical role of the guard at the point of dispatch, and which would have cost the company absolutely nothing, have been kicked back in our faces,” Mick Cash, the union’s general secretary, said.
South Western said it had promised to keep a guard with a safety-critical role on every train and that the union was “intent on striking no matter what”.
“What we are not prepared to compromise on is the much needed modernisation of the service with improved performance, safety and customer service that our new fleet of modern suburban trains will vitally deliver for customers,” the company said.
The operator said it would “be calling on our team of contingency guards” and would expect to run “more than half” of Monday-to-Friday services until close to Christmas. The planned action will run from Monday December 2 to January 2, with a break for the general election on December 12.
Coach provider National Express has increased its capacity to cater for those struggling to travel. It said it had seen a 44 per cent increase in demand on South Western’s routes, increasing to 80 per cent in the weeks closer to Christmas.
“We’ve had lots of practice of picking up the pieces when rail lets people down,” John Boughton, the operator’s commercial director, said.