Owner of Southern Railway takes drivers' union Aslef to court over strikes
The parent company of Southern Railway has issued proceedings in the High Court, seeking an injunction to stop planned industrial action by drivers.
Aslef is planning strikes and an overtime ban in the run-up to Christmas and a week-long walkout in the New Year (January 9-14).
The strikes would cripple services on Southern, which is already being hit by a guards' dispute, staff shortages and other problems.
The train operator has lodged a court application citing its belief that Aslef's industrial action breaches customers' rights under EU law.
Charles Horton, chief executive of Govia Thameslink Railway, said: "We launch legal action reluctantly but now without any other choice.
"Obviously we would prefer to resolve this directly with Aslef. We asked the union to withdraw the industrial action and to re-enter discussions but they refused to do so, which means that we now have no choice but to go to court."
Aslef is opposed to the extension of driver-only trains.
Mr Horton continued: "We have a responsibility to our customers to do all we can to protect their interests and maintain services for them.
"Passengers now face the prospect of 40 days of continuous industrial action by Aslef and, on top of months of travel misery they've already suffered, it is totally unacceptable.
"The proposed industrial action called by Aslef is unjustified, unnecessary and we believe unlawful. It will severely disrupt all our customers, including the tens of thousands of customers a day who use our services for travelling to and from Gatwick Airport.
"We believe that the industrial action breaches our and our customers' rights under EU law and so we are seeking an injunction to stop the industrial action.
"It's perfectly safe for the driver to have sole responsibility for the operation of a modern train, and that's how a third of the trains up and down the country - with the full agreement and support of Aslef - already operate today."
GTR said, following the application to the High Court, the matter is likely to be considered at a hearing in the coming days.
Until the legal action is concluded it will make no further comment.
Aslef members on Southern are due to start an overtime ban next Tuesday followed by three days of strikes on December 13, 14 and 16.
The move follows a vote in favour of industrial action in a ballot.
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union are due to strike for three days from next Tuesday and again for 48 hours from December 19 in their long-running dispute over changes to the role of conductors.
Southern's passengers have suffered delays and cancellations for months because of the industrial action as well as staff shortages and other problems.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, said: "Once again, we see that GTR/Southern is a company desperate to seek to prevent the voice of their put-upon employees being heard.
"The company that has lost the confidence of the travelling public, taxpayers and staff - and which should have lost its franchise by now - seeks to do anything to prevent the right of free association.
"The Government will not condemn the tactics as the government created the situation and is using taxpayers' money to fund them.
"It is time, frankly, for the minister to come clean and admit that the Department for Transport is behind all the hurt, the pain, and the problems on Southern.
"We will continue to campaign and, if necessary, fight for the safety of our railway and the safety of passengers.
"We feel sorry for all those impacted - unlike the DfT and the company. I would urge everyone to look at the tactics being maliciously employed and then decide to support those not doing this for financial gain but for the long term good of everyone."
Meanwhile, major signalling issues at Balcombe forced multiple lines to be shut on Thursday afternoon and led to major headaches for commuters trying to get home during the evening.
A Southern spokesman said while the issue was resolved at about 2.30pm, some peak-time services could be delayed by up to an hour.
He advised commuters to check services before they travel, adding: "A lot of trains were out of position for evening peak."
On Twitter, Southern warned services running to and from Victoria and Brighton were expected to be disrupted until the end of service on Thursday.
Its customers also took to the social media platform to vent their frustration, with one complaining that signal problems at Balcombe were "perennial" and another calling the disruptions "predictable mayhem".
The RMT said a number of London Underground Tube stations were closed tonight during the rush hour because of an overtime ban by its members.