LONDON, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of London commuters faced travel misery on Tuesday as a strike by train drivers bought services from southern England and Gatwick Airport to a standstill in the worst rail disruption in Britain for two decades.
Drivers working for Southern Rail, which runs trains from central London to Gatwick and Brighton on the south coast, began a 48-hours stoppage over a long-running dispute about whose job it should be to open and close the train doors.
Southern, run by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), a joint venture owned by London-listed Go-Ahead and France's Keolis and Britain's largest train operator, said none of its 2,284 services would run as a result of the action.
"Travel Update: ASLEF and RMT Industrial action. No trains today," Southern's website said. Local media said the impact would be the worst since a strike by signal workers in the mid-1990s.
Southern users have already endured months of cancellations and delays because of high levels of staff sickness which were then followed by strikes by conductors, staff who currently have responsibility for the carriage doors.
Unions argue Southern wants to extend the use of driver-only operated trains and so reduce the safety role the conductors play. Southern says its modernisation plans would not cost any jobs but would lead to fewer train cancellations as services would no longer require both drivers and conductors.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said the action by ASLEF, the union which represents the drivers, was politically motivated.
"When I met the General Secretary of ASLEF soon after my appointment, with virtually his first breath he promised me '10 years of industrial action'," he said in a letter to lawmakers and Southern passengers to explain why he had not got directly involved in the dispute.
The operator, which handles 620,000 passenger journeys every day and failed in a court bid on Monday to prevent the strike going ahead, said the company was partly to blame for the "complex" problem.
"The way this will come to a resolution is to sit down with the trade unions and to thrash out what the answer is," Nick Brown, Southern's Chief Operating Officer told BBC radio. "By continuing with this strike actions, we will continue to inflict pain and suffering on our passengers."
Another 24-hour strike is due on Friday, with more walkouts planned by conductors this month and a five-day stoppage by both from Jan. 9. (Reporting by Michael Holden)