Southern rail strike: 48-hour walkout causes chaos for commuters

Passengers at London Victoria queue for an express train to Gatwick Airport Image copyright AP
Image caption Passengers waiting to board the Gatwick Express at London Victoria faced long queues

Rail passengers have been hit by travel chaos as striking train drivers bring the Southern network to a halt.

Members of the Aslef union walked out for 48 hours at midnight. A further 24-hour strike is set for Friday.

About 300,000 passengers usually travel on 2,242 Southern services every weekday. There will be no trains on any route and people have been warned not to travel.

The government said it may consider banning strikes on the railways.

'Brought to knees'

Passengers have suffered months of disruption in the dispute, which is about whose job it should be to open and close the train doors, but this is the first strike by Aslef drivers.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling dubbed the action a "deliberate act of militancy" and claimed Aslef had warned him to expect "10 years of industrial action" at a meeting in September.

He further accused unions of "deliberately trying to bring [the railway] to its knees" and dismissed claims the strike was about commuter safety as "palpable nonsense".

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"This has nothing to do with new ways of working on Southern. This is about the unions fighting against modernisation," he said.

Aslef and the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said it was ministers who had prevented Southern from negotiating properly.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash accused the government of being "hell bent on confrontation".

"It is that position which has led us to today's shutdown," he said.

"This morning Chris Grayling claimed again that the action on Southern is political - it isn't, it's about safe train operation for both passengers and staff alike."

Thousands of beleaguered commuters have vented their anger about the latest strike, which has forced many to work from home or take time off to avoid travelling.

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Media captionSouthern rail commuters vent travel frustrations

Mike Overill tweeted: "@ASLEFunion @RMTunion thanks to your standard petty squabbling I'm going to have an 11 hour commute over the next 2 days #southernstrike."

Ash posted: "#SouthernStrike day 1 and we were told not to Travel. I've ignored that, am using Thameslink/GW, and had a stress free journey as a result."

Sara Jayne Townsend wrote on Twitter: "Left house at 6 am for the long slog to work today with no trains. Still en route to Morden. #southernstrike

Analysis by Chris Mason, BBC Political Correspondent

Image copyright PA

Ministers say they have no legal power to halt this dispute but are pointedly publicly entertaining the idea of changing the law, albeit without offering any detail about how they might do this.

Chris Grayling told the BBC he would look at all the options when this strike was over, and while he wasn't "ruling anything in" he wasn't "ruling anything out" either.

The general secretary of the Aslef trade union, Mick Whelan, said the strike wasn't politically motivated - but a response to what he called "ill conceived" changes "fraught with danger".

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald has accused the government of attempting to "pin the blame" for its own incompetence on trade unions.

Aslef's general secretary Mick Whelan said: "The strikes this week are not, whatever Mr Grayling tries to suggest, politically motivated.

"We have a trade dispute with GTR Southern, and only a poor government would seek to spin it any other way.

"We were willing to go to Acas last week but GTR Southern refused because they wanted to go to court."

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Media captionJohn: "The thing I need more than anything else now is a cup of coffee"

The RMT has staged strikes since April over the changes to the role of conductors and is also planning further stoppages either side of Christmas.

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Media captionAslef Chief Mick Whelan tells Radio 4's Today they have not been approached for talks

There have also been staff shortages, staff sickness, an overtime ban and other problems such as signal failures.

The latest action has closed most Southern routes although there is a limited Gatwick Express service to and from London Victoria.

Image copyright Jim Roberts
Image caption Thameslink was running some trains including this crowded service from Brighton to London Blackfriars

On Monday, the Court of Appeal rejected an attempt by Southern's parent company Govia Thameslink Rail (GTR) to halt the action.

Passenger services manager, Angie Doll, said: "The strike today is totally unjustified and totally unnecessary considering the small changes we want to make.

"We need the unions to work with us to modernise the railways. "

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Media captionAngie Doll, passenger services director, said the strike was "unnecessary"

GTR chief executive Charles Horton said the rail company would be asking Acas to convene "urgent and immediate" talks.

He said: "Our aim is to find a resolution to their dispute so we can bring an end to the misery being suffered by the travelling public."

Image copyright PA
Image caption The disruption has forced passengers to work from home or take time off
Image copyright AP
Image caption Aslef fears existing guards will be replaced with zero-hour contracts and agency staff

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has repeated his offer to put Transport for London (TfL) in control of Southern rail and other commuter lines, saying passengers had been "abandoned by the government".

He also urged unions to "get back round the negotiating table", and called on commuters to write to the government calling for TfL to take control.

Analysis by Richard Westcott, BBC Transport Correspondent

Image copyright Getty Images

In a nutshell, the strike is about about safety, jobs and politics.

On safety, Southern wants to bring in something called driver-only-operated (DOO) trains where the driver, rather than the conductor, opens and closes the doors.

Unions say the on-board conductor/guard has a much better view of the doors and can stop people getting trapped.

Southern has guaranteed that no-one will lose their job, or take a pay cut. The second person will now be free to help passengers, they say.

Then there's the politics.

Ministers are paying Southern's parent company, GTR, to run services, while the government collects the fare money.

So the cost of all the strikes and disruption is picked up by the government, not the train firm.

Whatever happens here will be reflected in future franchises as they take delivery of new, driver-only-operated trains.

Right now, I really can't see how this dispute will end. No-one's budging on the critical issue. No-one's even talking.

What's the Southern Rail strike about?

The BBC's Duncan Kennedy said strikers on a picket line at Horsham station had told him drivers were losing at least £150 a day while on strike, with more experienced drivers losing more.

He added that those on the picket line told him there was no Aslef strike fund.

The union confirmed those on strike were not being paid during the current action.

Drivers on Southern and the Gatwick Express are paid an annual salary of £49,660, according to Aslef.

Image copyright AP
Image caption About 300,000 travellers use Southern services each day during the week

Southern planned rail strike dates

Image copyright PA

00:01 Tuesday 13 December to 23:59 Wednesday 14 December (Aslef)

00:01 Friday 16 December to 23:59: Friday 16 December (Aslef)

00:01 Monday 19 December to 23:59 Tuesday 20 December (RMT)

00:01 Saturday 31 December to 23:59 Monday 2 January (RMT)

00:01 Monday 9 January to 23:59: Saturday 14 January (Aslef)

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