Thousands of commuters face chaos as South Western Railway workers begin five-day strike 

Five days of strikes have begun on South Western Railways (SWR) this morning as trade unionists accuse the provider of failing to guarantee guard roles. 

Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union members walked out just after midnight, saying they had been left with ‘no choice’ other than industrial action.

It means disruption for commuters this morning heading into London Waterloo from areas including Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Devon. 

But SWR say the strikes are ‘unnecessary’ and branded the union ‘cynical’ for matching the timing of their action with Royal Ascot.  

The RMT, whose members are mostly guards, is protesting against the decision by rail operators to make drivers open and close the doors on new trains. A file photo is used above for illustrative purposes only [File photo]

It follows 29 days of striking from RMT over the past two years. In February as planned walkout was called off when RMT hailed ‘substantial progress’ in talks.

Union members had also called off strikes on Northern Rail after the provider agreed to provide a conductor on all of its trains.  

A number of high profile events are being held this week which could be affected by the strikes, including the Royal Ascot racehorse meeting, music concerts at Hampton Court, and a gig by rock band Metallica at Twickenham on Thursday. SWR said it will run extra trains to the events.

Industrial action was suspended in February when it appeared a resolution was in sight, but the union is renewing strikes after accusing the company of ‘dragging its heels’ in protracted talks over the past few months.

The RMT said SWR was not prepared to give assurances that its new operational model will not move to driver controlled operation, which sparked fears of a ‘stitch up.’

According to the RMT, the train company pledged in February that ‘each passenger train shall operate with a guard with safety critical competencies’, which led the union to suspend industrial action.

Union officials said since then it has been ‘stalemate’, accusing the company of ‘rowing back’ on its public pledges.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: ‘Our members have been left with no choice but to go ahead with strike action.

‘They are angry and frustrated that despite suspending action in good faith, and entering into talks in a positive and constructive manner, South Western Railway have dragged their heels and failed to bolt down an agreement that matches up to our expectations on the guard guarantee.

‘Worse than that, the company have refused to give assurances on the future operational role of the guard, fuelling fears amongst our members of a stitch up.

‘That situation has been compounded by an insistence that future operational models will be governed by the protection of company profits and not the safety of the travelling public.

‘For more than three months we have sought to negotiate a conclusion to this dispute and it is wholly down to the management side that the core issue of the safety critical competencies and the role of the guard has not been signed off. It is because of that crucial failure by SWR that we have had no option but to lift the suspension and move back into strike action.’

An SWR spokesman said: ‘It’s very disappointing that despite having had dates in the diary for what we hoped would be further constructive talks, the RMT union decided to call disruptive strike action over the course of five days.’

The company said it met with the union last week and agreed to arrange new dates to continue those talks.

‘However, they seem insistent on going ahead with their unnecessary strike which will impact our customers and colleagues alike.

‘The RMT has always said it wanted us to keep the guard on every train which is what we have offered as part of a framework agreement.

‘We want to move the conversation on to how we operate our new trains and take advantage of the new technology on board to benefit our customers.

‘We remain committed to finding a solution that will help us build a better railway for everyone. We will do everything we can to keep customers moving during these strikes but would like to apologise for the disruption this unnecessary action will cause.

‘Passengers are strongly advised to plan their travel in advance as services are likely to be busier than usual because of the strike action.

‘Rail replacement services and ticket acceptance on other bus and rail networks have been organised where possible, whilst fans attending events at Twickenham, Hampton Court, Royal Ascot, and elsewhere, are advised to allow extra time for their travel.

‘Customers will be able to see amendments to their train services, as currently published on our website.’