Hundreds of thousands of rail passengers faced travel misery on Monday at the start of a series of strikes in the long-running dispute over guards on trains.
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union on South Western Railway (SWR) walked out on the first of 27 days of industrial action lasting until New Year’s Day – the longest stretch of action against a major rail operator in living memory.
Passengers have been warned that only around half of services will run, including those to and from London Waterloo, the country’s busiest railway station.
Services will be cancelled, replaced by buses or finish earlier than normal, and trains that do run are expected to be busier than normal.
Monday’s disruption was worsened by a track circuit failure which hit services between Reading and Ascot, meaning fewer trains were able to run on all lines. The problem was expected to hit services until midday.
Talks between the two sides collapsed last week, with the union and company blaming each other for the failure to reach a deal.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “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 despatch, and which would have cost the company absolutely nothing, have been kicked back in our faces."
An SWR spokesman said: “We have done everything we can and more to meet the RMT’s outdated demands with our promise of a guard on every train, and a safety-critical role for that guard.
“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."
Sean McKee, director of policy and public affairs for London Chamber of Commerce, said: “With peak services under increased pressure due to so many cancellations, and long queues expected at busy stations, it’s sadly inevitable that this cynically long strike will have an impact on commuting workers and businesses during peak commuting times.
“With trains due to finish earlier, it will also impact shift work and the night-time economy – key to the festive economy.”
Mr Cash said the start of the strikes was being “solidly supported”, with picket lines mounted outside stations across the SWR network.
He added: “This strike is solely about protecting safety and accessibility on SWR trains. The stakes could not be higher."