ABOUT 400,000 commuters had nightmare journeys today as a strike hit the entire South West Trains network.

More than 900 staff who are members of the train drivers' union Aslef walked out at midnight in a 24-hour action.

SWT advised passengers not to use its services. "There will be no trains at all on many routes, and about one in 10 of our normal trains on others," the company said in a statement.

The company said stations were quieter than usual, suggesting passengers had followed the advice. Many people drove into work, while others took the day off or worked from home.

One in four drivers turned up in spite of the strike. Some routes were served by replacement buses, many of which had to be booked in advance.

The network normally runs almost 1,700 trains on a weekday on 616 miles of track between London and the South West.

Today's action is the first of three 24-hour strikes, with the next two due on September 8 and 11.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has also asked its SWT drivers to strike on the three dates.

Small local dispute

The row started with a local dispute at Waterloo over whether SWT should provide taxis for drivers on early or late shifts.

When the depot's drivers refused to work, SWT drafted in managers from as far as Bournemouth to drive trains.

"One manager, although technically competent, had not driven a train alone for a decade," Aslef said in a statement. "And, to add insult to injury, (the company) fetched them (the managers) in by taxi."

Aslef said SWT breached an agreement that says managers will only drive trains in cases of health, safety or the possibility of civil unrest.

But the train company's chief, Steve Palmer, said: "We believe that a strike is an exceptional circumstance, and that the prospect of leaving thousands of (passengers) stranded at stations and the subsequent overcrowding could have led to very real safety concerns."

The unions wanted SWT to promise never again to use managers to drive trains during a strike, Mr Palmer added. "This is something we can never agree to.

"While unions may have the right to strike, we must have the right to do everything we can to continue to serve our passengers."

Keith Norman, Aslef's general secretary, accused the company of "using its passengers to try to score points over the union.

He added: "I am only sorry the public will suffer, rather than this appalling management."

In a separate dispute, drivers of the Heathow Express service were also on strike today. However, the airport train company said it would run a normal service.

Updated 12.45pm