Aslef lifts rail strike threat

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The train drivers' union, Aslef, yesterday afternoon accepted an improved pay-and-hours offer from British Rail, lifting the threat of further rail strikes.

Management and union leaders acted swiftly to stifle any disruption after a morning announcement that drivers had rejected a 3 per cent rise and a two-hour cut in the working week. On a 78 per cent turnout, the drivers voted by 5,101 to 4,370 not to accept the deal.

But an improved offer to the 12,000 drivers, bringing forward the shorter week, was made during talks between Aslef leaders and Paul Watkinson, BR's personnel director.

Drivers were unhappy with BR's original plan not to introduce the 37- hour week until May 1997. Under the offer accepted by the Aslef executive yesterday, the cut should be implemented by next August.

Lew Adams, the union's general secretary, said the board had moved "significantly" towards the union's position and the dispute was now over.

Mr Adams said he was positive that drivers' hours would be cut to 37 by next August. "I believe we shall be delivering to every driver a shorter working week, which is what we wanted," he added. "We are satisfied with the offer and we have advised the board that it is acceptable."

Mr Watkinson said: "I'm pleased that we can now get back to the business of providing train services for our passengers and freight customers."

Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, looked forward to Aslef negotiating "new working arrangements at local level in keeping with a modern, privatised railway".

Under the terms of a deal worked out last month, new working conditions would have to be implemented by the 25 operating companies. Two one-day strikes last month by the drivers cost BR up to pounds 20m in lost revenue.

Meanwhile, fears of severe disruption to Eurostar services between London, Paris and Brussels evaporated as strike-breaking by French train drivers resulted in a near-normal service.

With the strike over bonus payments due to last until Sunday night, European Passenger Services, the UK arm of Eurostar, said it hoped to run six out of ten of its London-Paris services and a full Brussels service today.