COMMUTERS could face disruption for “an awful long time”, transport unions involved in the Southern Railway dispute warned.

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said his members were not about to “back away” from the row over driver-only trains.

Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Cash said his members were also prepared to “continue the fight” as both union chiefs urged Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to negotiate directly with them to end the dispute.

Rail minister Paul Maynard MP responded by saying he would not meet the union leaders for negotiations unless they removed the their threat of strike action.

At a meeting in Westminster, Mr Whelan said the dispute “could go on for an awful long time, unfortunately” while Mr Cash said if the Transport Secretary was not prepared to join talks the long-running row would continue.

Their words came shortly before the RMY announced plans for further strike action on August 1, coinciding with the first of three strikes by drivers.

Both unions said Mr Grayling and the Department for Transport (DfT) are behind the move to driver-only trains, dispensing with guards on Southern. Mr Whelan said: “We believe that the company hasn’t had the latitude or the authority to make meaningful agreements with any of the trade unions involved. If the DfT is going to control this through dogma, then the DfT has got to be part of the solution.”

Mr Cash said: “Our members passionately believe in their case. We have been trying for some time now to talk to Chris Grayling, get around the table. This dispute has never been and will never be about money as far as the trade unions are concerned, it’s purely and simply about safety. That makes it “all the more surprising why Chris Grayling won’t meet us

“He is an elected politician and we expect elected politicians to listen to us.

“Sooner or later he is going to listen. I don’t want to be here in 16 months’ time again, but if he wants us to be here still in 16 months’ time all he has got to do is do nothing.

“So the opportunity to resolve this dispute is in his hands. All we are asking him to do is get around the table and talk to us. Why is that not achievable?”

Mr Maynard dismissed the suggestion the dispute was all about safety and called on the unions to remove the threat of strike action. He said: “We are willing to talk. The unions need to call off their strike action and get around the table for discussions. They may find us more willing than they expect.”

The meeting in Westminster was organised by Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd who said it was “ridiculous” that the dispute had gone on so long.