Southern rail and unions to hold new talks over strikes
Rail bosses have agreed to hold formal talks with unions in a bid to resolve the Southern rail dispute that has left the network at a standstill.
The Aslef union announced the move on the first day of a 48-hour walkout by its train driver members.
It is hoped talks at conciliation service Acas will yield a breakthrough in a row over driver-only trains.
The BBC understands the planned meeting follows face-to-face conversations between interested parties on Tuesday.
Wednesday's strike and a further 24-hour stoppage on Friday are still due to go ahead.
Travel on one of the UK's busiest commuter routes has been effectively shut down since the 48-hour strike began earlier.
The latest action has closed most Southern routes, although there is a limited Gatwick Express service to and from London Victoria and Thameslink services continue to operate via Blackfriars station.
Aslef, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union and Southern have been coming under increasing pressure to settle bitter disputes over driver-only trains and changes to the role of guards.
The long-running dispute has escalated into a war of words between Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, the unions and Southern's parent company, Govia Thameslink (GTR).
'Act of militancy'
Mr Grayling accused the unions of a "deliberate act of militancy", saying Aslef had warned him at a meeting in September to expect "10 years of industrial action".
He accused the union of "deliberately trying to bring [the railway] to its knees" and said he could consider banning strikes on the railways.
Aslef 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."
RMT general secretary Mick Cash accused the government of being "hell bent on confrontation".
GTR chief executive Charles Horton said he welcomed the "opportunity to discuss a way forward" with both Aslef and the RMT at Acas.
He said: "The travelling public are suffering misery and inconvenience and the impact on the regional economy is significant.
"We assure everyone we are committed to trying to find a solution to the unions' dispute."
The rail company said it looked as though many of Southern's 300,000 week-day passengers had chosen not to risk further travel disruption on Tuesday by not travelling to work.
A GTR spokeswoman said: "Our stations have been a little quieter than usual because passengers have been heeding our advice not to travel.
"The services that have run (on Gatwick Express and Thameslink) have been well-used and the services that we have put in place have operated well."
MP Tim Loughton, who represents East Worthing and Shoreham, one of the areas worst-hit by the dispute, welcomed news of the breakthrough.
"I hope it is light at the end of the tunnel. This could have happened ages ago," he said.
Shadow transport minister Pat Glass said: "It is good that they are getting round the table. But Southern rail was an absolute disgrace before the dispute. It will continue to be a disgrace.
"The Secretary of State for Transport needs to be here at the table because he is controlling it. After that he needs to take a real hard look at Southern."
Southern planned rail strike dates
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)