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British commuters brace for 27 days of rail strikes

By EARLE GALE | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-12-04 10:22

There was a glimmer of hope on Tuesday for hundreds of thousands of rail passengers staring down the barrel of a 27-day strike when the union leader who launched the industrial action urged his opposite number to get back around the negotiating table.

Rail, Maritime and Transport Union workers protest outside Waterloo Station in London on Monday as a rail strike begins. [Photo/Agencies]

Mick Cash, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, said that while union members "solidly support (ed)" the second day of the strike "it is frankly ludicrous for the company to simply jam their heads in the sand rather than getting back round the table".

He said his negotiators came close to reaching an agreement in recent talks with South Western Railway and that both sides should make an extra push.

"A deal is there to be done which would cost the company nothing and which would give the safety and accessibility guarantees at the platform/train interface that we have been seeking," he said. "SWR need to get out of the bunker and get back into talks."

The union has been at loggerheads with South Western Railway, which is also known as SWR, for two years over the future of the 900 guards who work on the company's trains. SWR says guards are underemployed and can be given other duties while drivers can easily operate the doors on new trains. The union says the guards' role should be left as it is because they ensure safety in a way drivers cannot.

During the 27-day strike, hundreds of services will be cancelled each day on routes SWR operates between London Waterloo and Portsmouth, Southampton, Bournemouth, Weymouth, Reading, Exeter, and Bristol. The company also operates suburban routes in southwest London, Surrey, Berkshire, and Hampshire.

The Daily Mail says 850 services are being lost each day and the BBC noted trains that are running are seriously overcrowded. London Waterloo, the United Kingdom's busiest railway station, has been disrupted not only by overcrowding but by picketing workers.

In response to Cash's call for talks, Railnews, the national monthly newspaper and news website for the British railway network, quoted SWR as saying: "We are always open to talks if the RMT is ready to work with us to improve our service and develop a more visible, customer-focused role for guards."

ITV News said the strike, if it concludes on New Year's Day as planned, will be the longest against a major rail operator in living memory.

An SWR spokesman said: "We have done everything we can and more to meet the RMT's outdated demands with our promise of a guard on every train, and a safety-critical role for that guard. What we are not prepared to compromise on is the much-needed modernization of the service with improved performance, safety, and customer service that our new fleet of modern suburban trains will vitally deliver for customers."

EARLE GALE in London

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