All-out strike threatened for rail network

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair faces the prospect of a nationwide rail strike in the run-up to the Labour Party conference in October, which threatens to cause the most serious disruption to commuters since the signalworkers' dispute in 1994.

Leaders of the biggest rail union yesterday called strike ballots among 6,000 guards at 20 train operating companies covering around 85 per cent of the network.

Leaders of the RMT union are angry over proposals which will allegedly "downgrade" the job of guard to "salesperson" who will be given a minimal degree of technical training.

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the union, argued that the companies wanted to appoint guards for their "looks" and ability to sell to passengers rather than their operational and safety knowledge. "We will end up with the best looking staff in the world and one of the least safe railways," he said.

In the wake of the plan by the Great Eastern to employ commuters as part- time guards, the RMT believes its campaign of action would attract substantial public support.

Only five out of the 25 train operating companies throughout Britain are exempt from the strike ballots. The RMT has elicited guarantees over safety from North London Railways and the union has agreed driver-only operation with four others: Thameslink, the Chiltern Line, West Anglia Great Northern and the Island Line on the Isle of Wight.

Elsewhere, however, the union believes any action would be highly disruptive because more than nine out of ten guards are RMT members. The union is due over the next 10 days to decide on the exact nature of the action, but it is likely to be in the form of 24-hour stoppages.

Last April, the union sought assurances from the train operators that they would not dilute safety standards in the drive for profitability. Only North London Railways gave a reply which satisfied the union.

The companies have put forward a range of proposals which would result in some of the safety responsibilities being transferred from the guard to the driver or to an unspecified "competent person", said the RMT leader.

The strike ballots close on 2 September and in the absence of a settlement, the action would begin on 10 or 11 September, during the annual TUC Congress and a fortnight before the Labour conference.

A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said a group of experts convened by Railtrack was preparing to make some amendments to the legally-backed railway rule book to ensure an even safer industry.

A spokesman for Railtrack, which is responsible for the contents of the rule book, said: "We are trying to simplify the arrangements so that the guard is free to undertake his or her safety responsibilities."

n Talks will be held to avert 24-hour strikes by drivers at Regional Railways North East in protest at working hours.