Hundreds of rail services to be cancelled in strikes against five operators

Rail services will be hit by the biggest disruption in decades on Wednesday because of strikes against five operators in bitter disputes over the role of guards.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) on Southern, South Western Railway (SWR) and Greater Anglia will strike on Wednesday and Thursday while a 24-hour walkout will be held at Merseyrail and Arriva Rail North on Wednesday.

Hundreds of services will be cancelled, replacement buses will be laid on and services that do run will be busier than normal, passengers have been warned.

The biggest disruption is threatened at SWR, which only took over the franchise from South West Trains in August, with more than a third of services set to be hit.

The RMT raised safety fears over the contingency plans of Greater Anglia, even though the industry's regulator ORR said it was satisfied with the arrangements.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: "The only way that Greater Anglia can be running these services is through taking serious risks with public safety just as they did during the last phase of strike action.

"Rail companies are training up rail staff who have previously had no rail operational experienced to stand in as highly trained guards.

"In some cases staff are being bussed in by other train companies not involved in the dispute, paid a bounty and put up overnight in hotels."

A Transport Department spokesman said: "The RMT is attempting to disrupt passengers as part of its political game. However, rail companies are keeping passengers moving with the large majority of services running as planned.

"This dispute is not about jobs or safety - employees have been guaranteed jobs and salaries. In fact at Southern Rail, where these changes have already been introduced, there are now more staff on trains.

"The independent rail regulator has said driver-controlled trains, which have been used in this country for more than 30 years, are safe."

South Western Railway
The action will also affect South Western Railway services on Wednesday and Thursday (Victoria Jones/PA)

Labour has told the five rail operators that the party will halt any future plans to extend driver-only operations if it wins the next general election.

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said in a letter that guards are vital for duties such as helping passengers who need assistance.

Mr McDonald said Labour believed the railways should aspire to the safest possible method of train despatch to ensure the maximum level of passenger service, security and safety.

The letter said: "I remain concerned that in the event of a train evacuation, derailment or incapacitated driver, the absence of a guard to assist could leave passengers at risk. Similarly, anti-social behaviour on trains could increase without the presence of a guard.

A survey of over 1,000 businesses for the Rail Delivery Group showed that almost three out of four fear rail strikes will harm the economy with a third believing they could directly harm their businesses.

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