Strike threat over rail pension deficit

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Ministers were urged yesterday to intervene over an estimated £600m rail pensions deficit or face the first all-out stoppage on the network since the General Strike in 1926.

Leaders of the biggest unions in the industry representing 100,000 workers united to demand a meeting with Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, over the issue after the Association of Train Operating Companies and other rail bodies refused to negotiate with them.

Employees' representatives said they were keen to avoid industrial action which could close the network, but also warned the Government they would not "stand aside'' when their members faced "abject poverty'' in retirement.

The rail unions RMT, Aslef and TSSA together with the engineering union Amicus put forward four key demands yesterday including the reorganisation of about 100 funds into three for the whole industry. Workers' leaders want one scheme for train operators, one for infrastructure and rail engineering companies and another for other employees, which would cover more than 345,000 staff and pensioners.

They also insist that staff contributions should be no greater than 10.56 per cent, that benefits should be kept at the current level and that the scheme should be open to new employees.

Mr Darling has been keen to avoid establishing any industry-wide structures in case it gave rail unions more leverage. The argument has been that the more fragmented the business, the less power unions can exercise.

Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT, warned a strike ballot could begin in late April or early May if Mr Darling failed to "get a grip'' on the situation.