Up to half the 7,600 staff working for the four rail-freight companies bought by the US company, Wisconsin Central, are likely to lose their jobs over the coming six months.
North and South Railways, the Wisconsin subsidiary, which recently took over Loadhaul, Mainline Freight, Rail Express Systems and Transrail, announced yesterday it has written to all staff asking for volunteers for redundancy.
A spokesman said: "A package is on offer which will take into account people's age, current salary and years in service. All staff have received details of the scheme and will be given the opportunity to discuss their options over the coming weeks."
In announcing the scheme, the company said it wanted to make cost reductions in order to increase its share of the total British freight market.
The head of Wisconsin, Ed Birkhardt, is taking an aggressive attitude to freight and is determined to increase the market share from road, which is currently around 6 per cent.
Although the company refused to name a figure for job losses, Mr Birkhardt has already suggested more than 3,000 jobs could go when the companies are merged into one operation.
The three heavy-haul railfreight companies were, in fact, de-merged by the Government only two years ago, in an effort to boost competition on the railways. But Mr Birkhardt's offer for pounds 225m for all three persuaded the Government to sell them as one group. The four companies made profits of about pounds 70m on a turnover of pounds 620m in 1994/5. Job losses were inevitable, given the merger of the three companies together with Res, which runs the mail trains and the Royal train.
Unions believe that as many as 4,000 jobs could go. A spokesman for RMT, which represents most railworkers apart from drivers and white-collar staff, said: "We are concerned that the job losses envisaged do not square with the company's declared strategy of growth. We shall continue with our talks with the company. Our policy has always been that there should be no compulsory redundancies."