BR opens door to new negotiations: More commuters struggle to work as second 24-hour strike paralyses rail network

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CHANCES of avoiding more disruption on British Rail rose last night on a day when the network was brought to a virtual standstill with a 24-hour strike by more than 80,000 staff.

A letter signed by Sir Bob Reid, BR's chairman, meant the protagonists were 'inching towards a settlement', according to the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, the industry's largest.

BR said the note to John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, contained nothing new, but welcomed the prospect of further negotiations.

Yesterday more people 'struggled in to work' than during the day-long stoppage on 2 April, but the expected travel chaos did not happen. A few coal trains in Nottinghamshire ran and members of both RMT and Aslef, the train drivers' union, turned up for work 'here and there', BR said.

Train drivers' leaders are due to meet on Monday to assess assurances by BR over their employment conditions in the run-up to privatisation. Derrick Fullick, Aslef general secretary, said there was now a chance of a settlement.

Officials of RMT said Sir Bob's letter formed the basis of negotiation over its demand for assurances about compulsory redundancies and the introduction of contractors into the industry. It served to clarify points made in a letter to the union on Thursday morning, which arrived too late to avert the stoppage, RMT said. In the letter, Sir Bob said there were no plans 'currently for any compulsory redundancies' or for 'a major extension of the use of contractors in the area of track maintenance during the next couple of years'.

That went part of the way towards reassuring rail workers, said Jimmy Knapp, the RMT leader.

The RMT executive meets on Monday to discuss the latest developments and is thought unlikely to call another 24-hour stoppage until it has had further talks with management. Informal contact between the two is expected over the weekend.

Mr Prescott called last night for the dispute to be referred to Acas, the conciliation service. He believed the contents of Sir Bob's letter, dated Thursday but received yesterday, went beyond that put on the negotiating table.

Fearing a repeat of the Great Day Off a fortnight ago, some companies, including Selfridges, yesterday insisted that staff not arriving at work would have to take the day as part of holiday entitlement. That warning seemed to work, with rather more people drifting in.

Pit protest waning, page 2