Hundreds of thousands of commuters have been told to abandon their travel plans on the eve of the most damaging rail strike in two decades.
Southern Rail told passengers that they should not travel by train for at least three days this week as the network is paralysed by a major drivers’ strike.
On Monday afternoon the company was locked in an eleventh-hour attempt to halt the industrial action by seeking an emergency injunction at the Court of Appeal. Its first attempt was rejected by the High Court last week.
However, in an extraordinary admission, the operator said that passengers should avoid travelling irrespective of the outcome of the appeal.
It said that any injunction would be granted too late to avoid meltdown on the network between London and the south coast because train timetables have to be finalised so far in advance.
Southern carries about 300,000 passengers a day while three other networks operated by the same parent company, Govia Thameslink Railway, cater for a further 200,000.
It is believed that the strike by drivers represented by Aslef and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) will lead to the complete shutdown of Southern and have an impact on the three other networks: Thameslink, Great Northern and Gatwick Express.
The number of Gatwick Express services between the airport and London Victoria has been cut in half while no airport services will run to and from Brighton on the south coast.
It is believed to be the most damaging strike since railway signallers took part in a series of walkouts in the summer of 1994 that led to the almost complete shutdown of services across London.
The disclosure came as Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, launched an attack against rail unions, claiming that he was warned they were preparing for ten years of industrial action.
He also claimed that the two unions had turned down a number of requests to hold talks over the industrial dispute.
The action, which has been ongoing since April, centres around the expansion of driver-only operated trains in which the doors are operated directly from the drivers’ cab, with no need for a traditional conductor.
Union bosses claim that it represents a major safety risk, although the Office of Rail and Road has insisted that the system is safe.
Angie Doll, passenger services director for Southern, said: “Even if we are able to stop the strikes through the court, services will still be very heavily impacted tomorrow. We will work through the night to try and provide as many services as possible, but we are still advising passengers not to travel as we will not be able to offer a robust service they can rely on.
“We are sorry but the industrial action by Aslef leaves us no viable alternative, but be assured we will do all we can overnight.”
In a letter to MPs, Mr Grayling said that Southern had offered fresh talks on Sunday but Aslef “didn’t turn up”.
He also claimed that Aslef had threatened a decade of industrial action.
“My ministerial and official team and I have been working hard since we took over our jobs just under five months ago to try to find a way through this,” he said. “But the unions appear to have little interest in resolving the dispute unless the management caves in totally to their demands.
“These are not just to stop the current modernisation process, but to start reversing 30 years of working practice changes right across the country.
“When I met the general secretary of Aslef soon after my appointment, with virtually his first breath he promised me ‘ten years of industrial action’.
“I have therefore believed it better to avoid direct ministerial involvement in negotiations during the autumn, as my involvement would make the issue even more political than it is.”