IT’S been a tough ride since the start of the new franchise for commuters on the Alton to Waterloo railway line.

Sandwiched between major disruption caused by trespassers on the line and signalling faults was an announcement by the RMT rail union that workers on the new South Western Railway franchise are to vote on whether to strike in a dispute over the role of guards.

The threat of industrial action first reared its head earlier this summer when it emerged 90 new trains ordered by South Western Railway have the capacity to be driver-only operated. Although the rail franchise has confirmed all services will have at least two members of staff on board, it has so far refused to commit to protecting the role of train guards.

Responding this week, the RMT said it has “spent months” since First Group and Hong Kong Metro operator MTR won the South Western Railway franchise from Stagecoach trying to get a “water-tight pledge” out of the new owners on the role of guards, but instead has been met with “a barrage of spin and prevarication”.

Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, said: “RMT has given repeated opportunities for First MTR to give us the assurances we have sought over the future role of the guards on their trains throughout the length of the new South Western franchise.

“They have refused to give us those guarantees and it is that failure which leaves RMT with no option but to declare a formal dispute with the company and to move towards a ballot for action.

“This dispute can be easily resolved if the company are prepared to stick to existing agreements, give staff and passengers alike a guarantee of a second, safety-critical member of staff on all current services and an assurance that safety and access are the absolute priority.”

South Western Railway has called the union’s actions “unnecessary”, commenting that it will provide more guards and drivers, and would work with the RMT to “deliver the best possible service”.

A spokesman for the new rail operator said: “We have made it perfectly clear that we plan to retain a second person on our services as we know that our passengers value the assurance and assistance a second member of on-board staff provides.”

The RMT is expected to begin with a ballot for strike action and action short of strike in the form of ban on overtime and a rest day working ban. Guards, commercial guards and driver members on South Western Railway and Island Line will be included in the ballot.

It adds to South Western Railway’s rocky start running the new franchise, which continued on Monday, as numerous faults across the network led to long delays and cancellations on services between London Waterloo and Alton.

Signalling problems have occurred repeatedly since Waterloo was reopened last week following the completion of multi-million pound engineering works, and as a result of the latest bout of faults Alton-bound services terminated at Farnham station for much of Monday afternoon.

This led to angry confrontations between passengers and station staff, as a large crowd gathered at the front of the station awaiting rail replacement buses to Bentley and Alton.

The discontent grew as South Western Railway unveiled its first fully-liveried train at Waterloo station last Monday.