Great Eastern Railway said that its phones have been ringing throughout the weekend with calls from people wanting a job as a "commuter guard", many of whom have been enticed by the prospect of free travel - worth thousands of pounds to season ticket-holders. Unions and passenger groups attacked the proposal, raising safety fears and added that another train company, London-Tilbury-Southend, reported difficulties in recruiting part-time guards on its services into London's Liverpool Street station from Essex.
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is expected to summon Great Eastern executives into his office at the Department of Environment and Transport this week to discuss the controversial scheme. He has already called for a Health and Safety Executive report into the proposal.
But unions say that the Health and Safety Executive cannot make laws, only enforce the existing "weak" regulations.
During the signal workers' dispute in the early 1990s Railtrack, the company that owns the nation's track and signalling, hired replacement staff who operated machinery with only one hour's training. When unions complained to the HSE, they were told that "the workers had the necessary certificate".
Despite the political storm, Mr Prescott has no way of stopping the proposed project. Sources within the department have made it plain that he will need considerable persuasion if the plan is to get his seal of approval - which may prove invaluable given the Deputy Prime Minister's intention to re-regulate the rail industry.
But Great Eastern said yesterday that it welcomed the opportunity of meeting Mr Prescott and insisted that its proposal did not compromise safety.
"The company will stress that any guards appointed will receive exactly the same training as full-time guards and will be subject to potential guards meeting the stringent requirements of Railtrack," Great Eastern said in a statement yesterday.
"Rosters will be organised in such a way as to ensure the period of rest required by any staff working in the industry is compliant with regulations. Further, the exacting rules regarding drugs and alcohol will be strictly enforced."
It stressed that no "commuter guard" will be allowed to drink during the day and all successful applicants will have to be trained in complex evacuation procedures.
The company, a subsidiary of First Bus, wants to offer free travel plus a salary of pounds 5.25 an hour to commuters prepared to make announcements on platforms, check that doors are closed and give a signal to the driver - before jumping on the train themselves.