Passengers have been saved from continually finding their trains cancelled at short notice – by the railway company simply deciding to not run the service at all.

Southern Rail says 83 trains a day are being cancelled due to a shortage of conductors – because too many workers keep calling in sick.

The firm announced yesterday (Weds) that 19 services would be “pre-cancelled” until further notice – just because their staff aren’t coming into work.

The railway operator, which runs busy commuter services between southern counties and central London, claims a huge number of staff absences has meant trains have to be cancelled at short notice – leaving commuters stranded or severely delayed.

But the RMT union has said the claim that high levels of conductor sickness is causing delays is putting the workforce at risk of attacks by public.

It hit back saying that staff shortages were actually down to Southern’s “failure” to recruit enough workers.

Southern released figures showing sickness among conductors had doubled since the start of an industrial dispute dispute over changes to their jobs roles.

A statement on its website said: “Cancelling trains on an ad-hoc basis like this doesn’t help you when you find out at very short notice that your train has been cancelled.

“While we are still experiencing the sickness issue, we have decided to make things more predictable for you by pre-cancelling a small number of trains each day – the same trains each day so you know where you stand.

“We believe this will reduce the number of cancellations we have to make each day.”

The cancellations will continue to be counted under the operator’s performance contract.

Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said the “abuse” of Southern’s workforce must stop “before we have a major incident on our hands”.

In a letter to Charles Horton, chief executive of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the company which operates Southern, Mr Cash said: “I am appalled at the inflammatory way you and your company are treating your staff.

“You also appear to be abandoning any sentience of your duty of care to your workforce.

“Rather you appear to be opening them up to attacks and abuse from passengers who might be inclined to believe your company’s propaganda.

“I would urge you to desist from such disreputable attacks and engage with my union in an attempt to resolve this dispute.”

In a press release, Mr Cash added that Southern’s attitude “leaves lone workers and women particularly vulnerable”.

Southern has not responded to the union’s claims, and again said conductor sickness was to blame for disruption.

The operator said that in the two weeks before the conductors’ first strike 23 conductors on average were off sick each day.

Since then this has almost doubled to an average of 40, rising to 45 more recently.

A Southern spokesman said the operator is investigating the “deterioration in the health of conductors”.

Meanwhile, over 12,000 concerned commuters have signed a petition demanding a review of Southern’s “unacceptable” rail service – meaning that the Government is now legally required to respond.

The petition stated: “This company’s punctuality and level of customer service is severely lacking and is damaging the lives and economy of those served by this operator.

“Using London Bridge development is not an excuse, as the Victoria services are also unacceptable.”

Eddie Vermeer, 40, who commutes frequently from East Grinstead, said: “I agree with the petition.

“I think the company have lost the confidence of the staff and the passengers.

“I don’t think there is anything they can do now that will change people’s opinions.

“It’s not something that has just occurred, it’s something that has gone on for years.

“Constant promises have been broken and in the end people have just got fed up.

“If I was in charge of a company and had 12,000 of my customers who felt so strongly against what I’m doing that they felt they needed to sign a petition against what I’m doing, I’d be pretty horrified that I’d allowed it to get to that situation.”

Miranda Telfer, 47, whose son James had trains cancelled every day for two straight weeks while in the midst of his A levels, has signed the petition.

The mum, from Lingfield, Surrey said: “I have signed the petition but I don’t think anything will happen.

“The petition will not reflect the true number of unsatisfied customers, as many people will not have known about it.”

A spokesman for Southern said: “We are doing our very best to improve punctuality to give passengers the quality service they deserve.”

The rail operator is tied into a management contract with the Department for Transport, which is due to continue until 2021.

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