South Western Railway strike: Everything you need to know about December walk-out

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Train schedules in and out of Britain’s busiest railway station will be wrecked by strikes for almost all of December. These are the key questions and answers

Who is going on strike?

Members of the RMT union working for South Western Railway (SWR) will strike for almost all of December. They will work normally only on 1 and 12 December (the day of the general election); no services were scheduled to operate on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.

How extensive is the SWR network?

South Western Railway is based at the UK’s busiest station, London Waterloo. Its trains serve southwest London, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset and Devon, with some running as far as Bristol.

On a normal working day, more than 300,000 passengers travel to and from London Waterloo, with tens of thousands more taking intermediate journeys on the network. 

What is the strike about?

New trains on South Western Railway are designed for driver-controlled operation (DCO). The train operator wants to change the role of guards. 

The RMT union wants assurances that “the guard will have an integral and guaranteed role in the despatch process,” and insists it is solely concerned about passenger safety and providing assistance.

The general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “Cutting the guard out of the despatch process reduces the second person on the train to little more than a passenger in the longer term which would give the company the option of axing them all together at some point down the line.

“Both the union and the travelling public are being set up and that stinks.

“Our action goes ahead from Monday in defence of passenger safety and accessibility and the blame for that lies wholly with SWR and their wrecking strategy.”

South Western Railway says: “We have promised that we will keep a guard on every train and that our guards will have a safety critical role. Both things the RMT has been asking for, so these strikes are unnecessary.

“We will do everything possible to get you where you need to go but ask that you leave more time for your journey and check before you travel for the latest information.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Yet more strikes are being dumped on passengers who may have to cancel Christmas holiday plans or endure miserable journeys to work. This dispute has dragged on for far too long and is damaging trust in the railway.

“It is vital that the parties in this dispute get back around the table.”

But after talks broke on Thursday, the union confirmed the stoppage would go ahead.

How many trains are likely to run?

South Western Railway has published emergency timetables showing about half of the usual number of services. 

The emphasis will be on helping commuters get to and from work. 

Between Monday and Friday, SWR expect to run more than half of the normal schedule, “prioritising capacity during peak periods”.

The train operator warns, however: “Peak services will be much busier than normal and we may have to introduce queuing at a number of our busiest stations.”

The standard pattern on the key lines from Portsmouth via Guildford and Southampton via Woking to London Waterloo will be to run one fast and one slow train each hour. West of Southampton, some trains will run to Bournemouth. A shuttle will run each hour between Bournemouth and Weymouth.

To concentrate resources over a shorter spell each day, “services will finish earlier than normal at around 11pm”.

No SWR trains are likely to run from Weybridge to Virginia Water, Ascot to Aldershot and Epsom to Effingham Junction. Buses will replace trains.

All services to Bath and Bristol Temple Meads will be cancelled, but passengers can use GWR services to these cities from Salisbury. The same apples from Southampton and Yeovil to Bristol. Between Epsom and Dorking, passengers can use their tickets on Southern.

How is the train operator able to run as many as half its trains?

Passengers on South Western Railway, in common with those on many other networks, have endured a long sequence of strikes. SWR has a pool of “contingency guards” (staff specially trained to work on passenger services). There are also some guards who will not go on strike.

The train operator would like to operate considerably more than half its timetable. But because the strike is so protracted, staffing will be thinner on the ground than usual.

This seems far more extreme than previous strikes; will it really run all month?

The RMT union is committed to the action. But South Western Railway believes that some guards may prove reluctant to lose thousands of pounds in earnings.

If larger numbers than expected turn up for work, SWR may increase the number of trains progressively. Should the percentage reach, say, 90 per cent, it is likely that the RMT union will increase its call for negotiations.

The RMT currently says: “The union remains available for talks and we have a deal to solve this dispute which is cost free for SWR worked up and ready to go.”

How will the dispute end?

The Department for Transport (DfT) is behind the move to make Driver Controlled Operation (DCO) the standard mode of running trains. While guards are to be retained, one perceived benefit of DCO is that trains can continue to run if, for some reason, the guard is unavailable – typically during times of disruption.


South Western Railway strikes begin as London Waterloo services affected for next five days

The RMT says: “This dispute has been entirely manufactured by the Department for Transport to increase company profits and to confront the unions.

“The passengers are the victims and the unions are fighting to defend them and safety standards.”

Yet the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) has published several research projects on various aspects of DCO on passenger trains.

It says: “None of these pieces of work has identified any increased risk from dispatching a train without a guard being present – providing the correct procedures have been followed. In fact, the removal of any possible miscommunication, which could exist between driver and guard could, potentially, deliver some safety benefits.”

At present, it looks like a war of attrition, with the hapless traveller caught in the middle.

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