Railtrack has most at stake in rail chaos

It is not hard for suspicious minds to find an ulterior motive for Aslef's decision to go ahead with six one-day strikes this summer. After privatisation, the union is likely to have about as much influence on national affairs as Arthur Scargill, so anything that delays a sell- off and deters private investors from buying into the railways amounts to simple self preservation.

The train drivers will be negotiating with 25 separate train operating companies rather than a single employer, British Rail. These Tocs will be free of the government interference that so delayed the resolution of the signalmen's strike last year, and free also to negotiate special deals with key workers, which will sideline national unions.

It is no secret that the Government was attracted to such a complicated privatisation partly because it would break the unions. Though bidders for the franchises are bound to use the strikes as a bargaining counter to improve terms, they will be as aware as anybody of how the industrial relations picture will change after the sales go through.The strikes are no reason for serious franchise bidders to pull out. The more serious impact of a summer of rail chaos will not be on the Tocs but on Railtrack privatisation.

The Aslef drivers do not of course work for Railtrack, which is separate from British Rail, with responsibility for the track infrastructure rather than the trains. But Railtrack, unlike the Tocs, will continue to be an integrated company that bargains nationally with the three unions it recognises. The Aslef strikes, though not directly affecting Railtrack, are a stark reminder to potential investors of how vulnerable the company will be to action by its own staff.

Railtrack not only has to reform its own industrial relations; it also has to convince the City it has done so. Selling the company by next spring, the Government's target, looks more difficult than ever.

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