Mass sacking of rail strikers ruled out

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THREATS of a 'get-tough' move by Railtrack to break the protracted signalmen's strike by issuing personal contracts are unlikely to be carried out, according to senior Westminster sources.

Although Railtrack officials confirmed last week that one of the options being studied was for the signalmen to be issued with individual contracts to bring the strike to a head, the sources said it was not a practical course of action.

'It would be very difficult to do,' a senior political source said. 'There are legal difficulties and the parallels being made with Ronald Reagan's sacking of the air traffic controllers are wide of the mark. He was able to replace them with trained operators. It's not like that with the signalmen.'

The stance is likely to disappoint some Tory MPs with angry commuters in their constituencies who have been seeking tougher action to break the strike. Individual contracts would in effect dismiss those who will not operate normally.

Railtrack was studying the idea as one of its options, the source said, 'but it is not about to happen. They want to negotiate a settlement.'

As the signalmen prepare to go on strike again today the Government and Railtrack are pinning their hopes for a breakthrough on the gradual collapse of the strike. They are hoping to run 40 per cent of trains today. The highest figure claimed on previous strike days was 30 per cent.

The union estimates that the number of regular services will be nearer 20 per cent. Last night it claimed Railtrack was counting trains running before midday, when its members were not on strike. 'They are claiming that the East Coast main line is open but they are just running one train up and one train down. It is not a normal service,' a spokesman said.

As the propaganda war on both sides continues, the RMT union maintains that Railtrack is engaged in a propaganda exercise to 'talk up' the number of trains to encourage a drift back to work - which the union denies is happening

Railtrack and ministers are also highlighting the level of take- home pay of signalmen, which they insist is about pounds 350 a week, roughly double the figure for basic pay usually quoted.

Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, who is on holiday, is avoiding being drawn into the dispute, after issuing a tough warning last week that Railtrack cannot offer payment up-front for productivity which has been paid for in the past.

Labour continued to accuse the Government yesterday of being the obstacle to a settlement, although Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, stepped back from the support for the strikers' claims given last week by Frank Dobson, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport. Mr Brown said: 'Labour is four-square behind getting a settlement to the strike . . . the Government must get out of the way of negotiations and allow them to happen. The different parties must get together and see if they can reach an agreement. That may mean arbitration, as suggested by the TUC.'

Tory MPs believe Railtrack has been outplayed by Jimmy Knapp, the RMT leader, in the battle for public sympathy, particularly over the allegations of a 5.7 per cent pay offer withdrawn at the insistance of the Government - a charge vehemently denied by Railtrack and by ministers.

Ministers are planning to put more pressure on Tony Blair, the Labour leader, to say whether he supports the strike. They also believe the strike may prove embarrassing for the modernisers in the TUC, if the dispute is continuing and Mr Knapp is in the chair at the annual TUC conference. However, it is more likely Mr Knapp will be given a strong show of support by his colleagues.