Strike action by train workers hits commuters

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Passengers on Britain's busiest commuter network face travel misery today when rail workers start the first of two 48-hour strikes.

Although South West Trains (SWT) hopes to run a skeleton service to Waterloo station, thousands of commuters are expected to take to their cars, causing massive congestion on roads. Leaders of the RMT rail union have called out all their 2,000 members working with SWT today and tomorrow and next Monday and Tuesday in a dispute over pay. Most of the train operator's 1,700 daily services will be cancelled.

Train crew in the RMT will be involved in a 24-hour stoppage on Tuesday in protest at the demotion of a driver who is an RMT representative. Staff believe he was victimised but management say he was legitimately disciplined for breaches of safety rules and had been under a "final warning".

Jane Lee, spokeswoman for SWT, said: "We have been in talks with the RMT up to the eleventh hour to find a solution for this unnecessary dispute. We have done everything we could ... but they left it until 7pm last night before they finally rejected our latest offer."

Vernon Hince, acting general secretary of the RMT, said it would not stand by and see its members treated like second- class citizens.

Strikes planned by Eurostar workers in a dispute over pay were called off last night after legal action by the train operator produced an injunction. Members of Aslef had been due to walk out tomorrow and on Sunday, threatening disruption to services between London, Paris and Brussels.

Meanwhile, rail chiefs have said passenger services will not be cut for the benefit of express and freight services. A fundamental review of the national timetable, reported in The Independent yesterday, is expected to harm local services.

A Strategic Rail Authority spokesman said: "Our time-table review will increase capacity, not reduce it." The Gatwick Express train company said it was scrapping middle-of-the-night services and making other early-morning schedule changes.

Stephen Byers is expected to be given a "second chance" to disclose sensitive documents dealing with his decision to place Railtrack into administration. The Railtrack Shareholders' Action Group is now likely to grant the Transport Secretary until 15 January to produce the papers. The group originally gave Mr Byers until 31 December to comply with its request. Investors are threatening court proceedings alleging an "abuse of power" on the part of Mr Byers.

* The Health and Safety Executive is to fight a claim for compensation brought by Thames Trains, one of the operators involved in the 1999 Paddington rail disaster, which claimed 31 lives. Thames Trains' insurers allege the executive should not have allowed the complicated signal layout on the station approach.