RAIL passengers are bracing themselves for yet more disruption to their lives after the RMT union announced a series of strikes in the first week of the New Year.

It's a case of out with the old, in with the new, as commuters, hit by a demoralising series of strikes and unreliability in 2001, start the new year with more of the same.

As the union announced a three-to-one vote in favour of the strikes, for Thursday January 3, Friday January 4, Monday January 7, and Tuesday January 8, passengers were left with the faint hope that South West Trains and the union were still talking to each other.

Mike Hewitson, of the Rail Passengers Committee, said: "It's essentially a pay dispute and there is normally a resolution to these things, so let's everyone not rush to the barricades before they've finished talking."

A lot of people would still be off work on the Thursday and Friday, said Mr Hewitson, but Monday will be the big "return to work" and there will be a lot of uncertainty.

"I won't be able to go to work in the New Year without thinking do I have to take work home, or what will the boss think if I don't get in? Am I expected to find alternative ways of getting to work? We just don't need this. It has been a terrible year for passengers. It's not for us to take sides — passengers don't care — it's up to the company and the union to sort it out."

At the hub of the dispute is the union's determination for other rail staff to achieve the same pay rises as drivers.

"Our members have stated loud and clear that they expect equal treatment across the board," said the RMT's acting general secretary Vernon Hince. "All we're demanding is a fair deal for all staff. Why should non-driver employees be treated less favourably when they work every bit as hard and are equally loyal? They are not second class citizens and we will not be brow beaten into accepting a hugely inferior deal on their behalf."

Train crew members also returned a Yes vote for industrial action in a separate ballot over disciplinary procedures involving two members.

A spokesman for SWT said talks are still going on, and there is still a chance the strikes could be averted, but he was "bitterly disappointed" for passengers that the union had voted for strike action.

"We felt the four per cent deal we offered, plus an offer of independent arbitration was sensible and would have allowed the RMT to make its case without passengers being affected.

"A lot of our customers would be happy to settle for a four-per-cent deal. Many are facing job cuts and uncertainty."

In response to the union statement, the spokesman added: "We certainly don't treat any of our staff as second-class citizens. We offered non driver staff 3.8 per cent, plus productivity talks. We gave the drivers 3.8 per cent, and they achieved the other 3.8 per cent of their award through productivity talks."

The spokesman also said he was "surprised" that a union which says it is concerned with safety should take issue with the company disciplining two members of staff on safety issues.

They are still members of staff and have indicated that they are taking their cases to an employment tribunal, which he felt was the proper course of action. "It should never be a ballot issue for industrial action," he said.