Four days of strikes are due to bring disruption and delays for thousands of commuters on one of Britain’s busiest train services, South Western Railway.
More than 40% of services on the network will not run on Friday and Monday, and only half of all scheduled trains will run at the weekend, when engineering works will also affect some services.
South Western Railway serves an average of 600,000 passenger journeys daily on lines between London Waterloo and regions including Surrey and Hampshire.
The strike by members of the RMT union is the latest in a long-running dispute over the future roles and responsibilities of guards on trains.
South Western said it had offered to keep a guard on every train “as part of a framework agreement”, but it wanted “to move the conversation on to how we operate our new trains and take advantage of the new technology onboard to benefit our customers”.
It said the remaining services were likely be busier than usual during the strike. Engineering works at the weekend will also mean fewer trains in south-west London on Sunday.
The RMT has accused the firm of “trying to mug off staff” by failing to give firm assurances over guards during talks.
It said clauses in the franchise contract that protect South Western in the event of strikes could mean the operator had received up to £32m from the taxpayer.
According to filings from First Group, which runs South Western in conjunction with MTR, negotiations with the Department for Transport have progressed to recover “strike amelioration”, although the government has not confirmed the amounts, citing commercial confidentiality.
The RMT said its £32m estimate was the equivalent of a 3.4% fare cut for South Western passengers. The general secretary, Mick Cash, who was re-elected this week for a further five-year term leading the union, said: “Passengers will be outraged to know that South Western Railway will be paid by ministers even when they don’t run trains on strike days. South Western don’t lose a penny from strikes and therefore have little incentive to negotiate seriously.”
The union will also stage strikes on Merseyrail next month in a parallel dispute over guards on trains.