South Western Railway strike forces commuters to fly to work

Simon Calder

As the longest UK rail strike this century enters its second week, some passengers are switching from train to plane in an effort to reach meetings in London.

Members of the RMT union walked out on 2 December in a long-running dispute over the role of guards.

They plan to continue the stoppage until the end of the year – apart from general election day on 12 December, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

South Western Railway says it is running slightly over half of its normal timetable – but on some less busy routes, trains are being replaced by buses.

For four stations on the West of England line – Pinhoe, Cranbrook, Whimple and Feniton – the earliest possible arrival at London Waterloo using the emergency timetable is just before 1pm.

The trip involves a bus to Honiton and two trains from there via Salisbury.

Normally there are two early-morning trains on the line, which start from Exeter and reach London Waterloo at 8.46am and 9.21am.

While GWR runs trains from Exeter St David’s to London Paddington, the journey from the four West of England line stations involves backtracking to the Devon city and facing high peak fares.

With Exeter airport convenient for affected towns and villages, some rail commuters are switching to Flybe flights to London City airport in the east of the capital.

Robin Barker, an exhibitions director from Whimple, found it “cheaper and easier” to fly from Exeter airport than to take the GWR train.

He found an air fare for £87, which undercut the rail trip of £140.

“There’s a total lack of any thought in the emergency timetable,” he said.

And while the Waterloo line ticket costs £80 for a peak-time single, GWR charges £133 for a journey that takes around one hour longer.

The only train that runs through from Exeter to London Waterloo, without stopping at the four Devon stations, leaves at 5.10am.

Test bookings by The Independent found that, for bookings made at 8pm the night before, the 7am flight on Monday from Exeter (arriving at 8.10am) was selling at £209.

For Tuesday, the fare was £103.

The standard one-way fare for all trains arriving before 11.39am is £133.

Booking for Tuesday, the lowest peak fare was an advance ticket at £125 – £22 more than the plane.

The RMT union insists the strike is solely “in defence of passenger safety and accessibility” and that members are striking in pursuit of an assurance that “the guard will have an integral and guaranteed role in the despatch process [as trains leave platforms]”.

General secretary Mick Cash said: “Cutting the guard out of the despatch process reduces the second person on the train to little more than a passenger in the longer term which would give the company the option of axing them altogether at some point down the line.”

South Western Railway says: “We have promised that we will keep a guard on every train and that our guards will have a safety critical role. Both things the RMT has been asking for, so these strikes are unnecessary.

“We will do everything possible to get you where you need to go but ask that you leave more time for your journey and check before you travel for the latest information.”

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