Strike wipes 300 trains from timetable

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Hundreds of trains may be permanently lost from the summer timetable as a result of a rail dispute on a key part of the London commuter network.

Senior directors from Connex South Central said they are considering plans to "formalise the emergency timetable in order to reduce the uncertainty for passengers." This would mean 300 less trains - nearly 20 per cent of scheduled services - than were supposed to run.

The dispute centres on a restructuring deal involving pay, and a shorter week, as well as on working practices for train drivers. Management says that it will not negotiate with the drivers union, Aslef, while its members are out on strike.

Yesterday, union representatives met officials of the conciliation service, Acas, to explain their side of a dispute. A spokesman for Aslef said that it was an opportunity to "brief Acas on the union's position".

The company, which operates trains from Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire into London Bridge and Victoria, is also considering hiring drivers to replace those staff unwilling to co-operate with the new working arrangements. "A lot of drivers have been made redundant in recent years and it would not be difficult to convert them to our network," said one Connex director.

A spokesman for Opraf, the office of passenger rail franchising, which now oversees the network, doubted whether any changes to the timetable could be made quickly. He added: "We would expect Connex to see us first."

The action by drivers has seen the cancellation of up to 435 trains - 30 per cent of the total timetable - on some weekends. The company has limited the effect on commuters by spreading the cuts throughout the train schedule.

A complex penalty regime, experts claim, will mean that the cancellations could cost the company more than pounds 100,000 a day. This is disputed by the company. Senior directors say that they will not be liable for fines because the cancellations have been caused by industrial action.

The dispute has soured relations between management and the union. Earlier this month, directors threatened to take action against Aslef, the drivers' union. And Connex South Central is expected to end the arrangement whereby union subscriptions are deducted from wages - thus depriving Aslef of substantial income.

No talks took place last week while Aslef held its annual conference. Directors had considered appealing to the union's executive in order to bring the dispute to a halt, but have not been able to reach it while the annual meeting took place.

Aslef maintains that it has already worked out similar arrangements with 20 of the 25 operating companies. The union points out that, unlike many other operators, Connex sought to impose the deal upon drivers - despite its rejection by the workforce.

"We are available for talks any time. Until the company produces something our negotiators can recommend to our members the situation remains," said a spokesman for the union.