Train drivers' strike to affect thousands

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Tens of thousands of rail passengers will suffer travel misery tomorrow because of a strike by train drivers which will cripple services on some of the busiest routes in the country.

Hundreds of drivers at South West Trains (SWT) will walk out for 24 hours in a bitter row tsparked when managers were drafted in to drive trains during previous industrial action.

The company today advised its passengers not to travel unless "absolutely necessary" as only one in 10 services will run.

SWT normally operates 1,700 services a day across the South East, carrying 400,000 passengers, including 350,000 into and out of London's Waterloo station.

More than 80,000 commuters travel to Waterloo in the morning rush hours so the strike will cause chaos in the capital.

The action is the first by SWT drivers for a decade and will be followed by two further strikes on September 8 and 11 unless the deadlock is broken.

The dispute started earlier this year when there was a disagreement involving Waterloo-based drivers over the use of taxis to and from work.

Managers were used to drive trains when the Waterloo workers went on strike, sparking a huge row with Aslef.

The union claims that the use of managers contravenes an agreement that they would only drive trains in cases of health and safety or the possibility of civil unrest.

Aslef also raised concerns over safety, claiming that one manager had not driven a train for 10 years.

Around 900 members of Aslef, as well as some drivers belonging to the Rail Maritime and Transport Union, are involved in the dispute.

The company denied the union claims and insisted that only fully-qualified managers had driven trains.

Managing director Stewart Palmer said in a message to passengers: "The unions claim we have breached an agreement only to use managers to drive trains in exceptional circumstances.

"We believe that a strike is an exceptional circumstance and that the prospect of leaving thousands of you stranded at stations and the subsequent overcrowding could have led to very real safety concerns.

"The unions seem determined to punish us for using every available resource to get our passengers where they wanted to go and to ensure the safe operation of the railway. What the unions call strike-breaking, we call customer service.

"They now want us to promise never again to use managers to drive trains during a strike. This is something we can never agree to.

"While we remain willing to discuss the local dispute behind this, our right to put our passengers first is non-negotiable."

Aslef general secretary Keith Norman said: "I believe the company is using its passengers to try to score points over the union. I am only sorry that the public will suffer, rather than this appalling management."

Drivers on the Heathrow Express from Paddington in London to Heathrow airport will also go on strike tomorrow in a separate dispute, although the company maintained that services will still run.