A new wave of rail strikes have been called to send a bitter dispute into its third calendar year.
The Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has announced that its members will now hold industrial action on all four Saturdays in January.
The walk-out - which affects Northern services using Sunderland, Seaham, Hartlepool, Seaton Carew and Billingham stations - will take the number of consecutive Saturdays hit by strikes to 23.
Northern and parent company Arriva Rail North (ARN) have been in dispute with the RMT since March 2017 over the future role of guards
The union fears that plans for driver-only trains will increase safety fears for staff and customers.
ARN, however, insists that guards will be guaranteed employment until at least 2025 and earlier this week called for an independent inquiry to look into its proposals in an attempt to break the deadlock.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash has now said: “RMT continues to make every effort to get serious and meaningful talks going with Northern but the company are not interested and would prefer to call for an inquiry into the dispute to deflect attention from the impact of their behaviour on the travelling public.
“German-owned Northern Rail want to run nearly half a million trains a year without a safety critical guard on board in a move that would wreck both safety and access to services and they should listen to their front-line staff and pull back from that plan immediately.
“We thank the public for their support and understanding throughout this dispute over rail safety and access and the union remains ready for genuine and serious talks.”
Unless the new strikes are called off, passengers will have endured 46 days of reduced timetables by the end of January.
Eight Northern trains will operate this Saturday in either direction on the Newcastle-Middlesbrough line between Sunderland, Seaham, Hartlepool, Seaton Carew and Billingham.
They will mainly run between 9am-5pm and full details are available at www.northernrailway.co.uk/strike or by ringing 0800 200 6060.