Rail staff threaten summer walkout face Guards to vote on national rail strike

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The Independent Online
THE NATIONAL rail system faces widespread disruption this summer as union leaders threaten the first walkout for five years.

Thousands of guards with all but three of the country's train companies are to be balloted on industrial action in protest at proposed changes to their responsibilities.

The RMT rail union expressed confidence yesterday that there would be an overwhelming vote in favour of action. The executive of the union is expected to opt for 24-hour stoppages initially, lengthening the period of strikes if the dispute continues.

The RMT believes that amendments to the industry's rule book, due to come in next month, will undermine safety and allow management to employ "cheaper" staff with minimal training.

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, said that guards currently hold extensive operational responsibilities. For example they are "in charge" of the train when there has been an accident. "If these changes are allowed to go through, guards will only have responsibilities for collecting tickets and selling Kit-Kats," he said.

Mr Knapp fears that the new regulations will "downgrade" guards. "It brings to mind the antics of the Great Eastern company the other year when management asked commuters to act as guards," he said.

Mr Knapp has written to train-operating companies warning that the union has not been given the assurances it was seeking over the role and responsibility of guards.

Railtrack is responsible for the industry's rule book, but the train operating companies implement it. The amendments will give guards responsibility for the inside of the train, including the passengers, in an emergency while the driver will have primary responsibility of the exterior. One Railtrack source thought the principle reason for the strike threat was inter-union jealousy. He thought the RMT was anxious that its members should not be devalued in terms of members of the drivers' union Aslef.

Ballot papers are due to go out on 7 August and the result is expected a fortnight or so later. It would be the first national dispute since the signal workers' strikes in 1994.

Three of the train operating companies - Thameslink, West Anglia Great Northern and the Isle of Wight Line - will not be affected because none of them use guards.

Railtrack said it had consulted the union over the change and that the Health and Safety Executive and all train companies believed it would enhanced safety.