London commuters face worst rail strike disruption for decades

Dispute centres on role of conductors

LONDON (Reuters) — Hundreds of thousands of London commuters faced travel chaos on Tuesday as a train drivers' strike bought services from southern England and Gatwick Airport to a standstill in the worst rail disruption in Britain for two decades.

Drivers working for Southern Rail, which runs trains from central London to Gatwick and Brighton on the south coast, began a 48-hour stoppage over a long-running dispute about whose job it should be to open and close the train doors.

Southern, run by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), a joint venture owned by London-listed Go-Ahead and France's Keolis and Britain's largest train operator, said none of its 2,284 services would run as a result of the action.

Local media said it would have the biggest impact since a strike by signal workers in the mid-1990s.

"The joy of #southernstrike day! I wish the heads of @SouthernRailUK nothing but pain & misery," commuter Morgan Calton wrote on Twitter.

Southern users have already endured months of cancellations and delays because of high levels of staff sickness which were then followed by strikes by conductors — staff who currently have responsibility for the carriage doors.

Some furious passengers say they have even lost their jobs or have had to quit because of the endless problems on Southern. Anger was directed at the company and the government as well as the Aslef and RMT unions.

"Thank you @ASLEFunion @RMTunion @SouthernRailUK it's taken 4.5 hours to get to work today! Plus how long going home later?" another commuter Roy Shepherd tweeted.

Unions argue Southern wants to extend the use of driver-only operated trains and so reduce the safety role the conductors play. Southern says its modernization plans would not cost any jobs but would lead to fewer train cancellations as services would no longer require both drivers and conductors.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said commuters had been abandoned by the government but Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said the industrial action was politically motivated. He did not rule out legislating in future to ban rail strikes.

"When I met the General Secretary of ASLEF soon after my appointment, with virtually his first breath he promised me '10 years of industrial action,'" he said in a letter to lawmakers and Southern passengers.

Another 24-hour strike is due on Friday, with more walkouts planned by conductors this month and a five-day stoppage by both from Jan. 9.

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