Minister labels rail company inept over cuts

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Thousands of commuters face delays and train cancellations after a privatised rail company's decision to cut 71 drivers amid the introduction of new working practices.

Thirty-nine trains have been wiped off the South West Trains daily timetable as the company struggles to instruct new drivers. The move came after a fortnight of misery for travellers in southern England where an average of 17 services a day were scrapped. One cancellation left 800 passengers stranded in the rush hour.

More than 200 train services throughout London, Surrey and Hampshire will be cancelled this week. Stagecoach, the bus and rail company which took over the company last year, admitted the curtailed services could take six weeks to sort out.

John Watts, the transport minister, described South West Trains' actions as "somewhat inept" and warned that the company faced large fines for failing to meet its obligations.

The Labour Party seized on the cancellations as proof that privatisation was not working. "South West Trains have broken their privatisation pledges, leaving passengers cheated out of the rail services they were promised a year ago," said Andrew Smith, Labour's spokesman on transport.

A spokeswoman for SWT said: "This is the last thing we wanted to do but we felt it was the best way to minimise inconvenience to passengers."

Of the 39 daily services affected, 33 were short-distance shuttle services, and many were on routes also served by other operators, she said. However, some mainline services between Portsmouth and Waterloo were also affected.

The company offered drivers voluntary severance as part of a major restructuring programme to bring in new pay and working conditions.

The deal - meant to introduce greater flexibility - replaces a wage package worth up to pounds 23,000 with a flat rate worth between pounds 25,000-pounds 26,000. The new system meant that some of the company's 650 drivers transferred to other depots and needed to be retrained to drive different routes, she added.

Drivers have to be trained so they know the position of signals, track and stations along the route. Learner drivers have to be supervised by more experienced hands and this has contributed to the shortage of services on South West's routes.

A spokesman for the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (Opraf), which let the train company last year to Stagecoach, said that SWT was facing "substantial" fines - set to run into tens of thousands of pounds - if the crisis was prolonged.

"This event should not have happened," said a spokesman for Opraf. "We are monitoring the company's progress and would like to see a swift return to the agreed timetable."

The fine is unlikely to dent the company's balance sheet unless it continued for months. Under South West Trains' contract with the Government it is paid more than pounds 5m a month to run the service. Any penalty would be taken out of this monthly subsidy.

Jonathan Bray, the co-ordinator of railway campaigners Save Our Railways, said: "It's certainly astonishing incompetence by management. We're not aware of anything like it happening before."