YET another rail privateer will face crippling strikes over driver-only trains, the RMT union announced yesterday.
Guards on South Western Railway, which runs services from London Waterloo to Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset, overwhelmingly backed strike action.
The ballot result came after the company failed to guarantee that guards’ roles would be maintained as the operator introduces new rolling stock.
With guards on Merseyrail, Northern, Southern and Greater Anglia already on strike today over similar issues, yesterday’s vote means that the next wave of walkouts could disrupt five major commuter networks.
The disputes centre on the expansion of driver-only operation, which the government insists is safe and is encouraging train companies to adopt. Unions warn that the practice threatens passenger safety, disabled access and jobs.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said his union had “given repeated opportunities for [South Western’s owners] First/MTR to give us the assurances we have sought over the future role of the guards on their trains throughout the length of the new franchise.
“They have refused to give us those guarantees and it is that failure which left RMT with no option but to declare a formal dispute with the company and to conduct a ballot for action.”
Mr Cash said four in five South Western guards had backed strike action, with 76 per cent of union members turning out to vote.
A South Western spokesman said: “We have been clear that we plan to retain a second person on our services, as we know that our passengers value the assurance and assistance a second member of on-board staff provides.”
The escalation of the driver-only dispute coincided with the RMT accusing rail bosses of dirty tricks and dishonesty in their efforts to undermine the strikes.
The union’s regional organiser John Tilley said Merseytravel, the body which oversees rail operations around Liverpool, was peddling “a shocking litany of misinformation, distortion and blatant lies.”
Mr Tilley said that a video of a verbal report given to local politicians showed Merseytravel chief Frank Rogers claiming that RMT had “asked about the potential for removing 240 station-staff jobs in order to pay for the retention of guards.”
The RMT official called this a “blatant and outrageous lie.”
Merseytravel did not respond to the Star’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, Mr Cash accused Southern of “intimidating … employees for taking legal industrial action,” accusing the company’s passenger services director Angie Doll of writing to RMT members “with threats and lies” suggesting that striking workers would be hit in their pension pots.
A Southern spokesman said: “We reject the latest claims made by the RMT. Tomorrow will be the 36th day of RMT strikes and we, like our passengers and the vast majority of our colleagues, simply want an end to this unnecessary dispute.”