Leaders of the RMT union are understood to have called a ballot among thousands of guards in the country's train operating companies in protest at proposals to change their status. Voting is expected to begin late next week during the Labour Party's annual conference in Bournemouth, where ministers will inevitably face questions about the dispute.
Senior RMT officials are confident of a vote giving the leadership the authority to call 24-hour strikes initially, with the power to lengthen the stoppages if the dispute continues.
Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the union, said guards were concerned that changes to the industry's rule book would turn them from workers with operational and safety responsibilities to "ticket collectors". At the moment, for example, guards are "in charge" of trains when there has been an accident. Under the proposals they would be responsible only for the inside of the train and passengers while the driver would deal with the exterior.
The union believes the proposals would also pave the way for the employment of "cheaper" staff with minimal training. Mr Knapp suspended an earlier decision to call a ballot after Railtrack promised to discuss amendments to the rule book.
A source at the union said that the company had reneged on its decision to review the plans and the RMT executive had decided in principle to go ahead with the ballot. The decision is expected to be ratified today after the union takes legal advice on the proposed timetable for the ballot.
A public inquiry into the 1997 Southall rail crash in west London was told yesterday that a warning system on the passenger train involved had been reported as having failed the previous day and on the day of the crash, 19 September 1997.
The crash in west London killed seven people and injured around 150. The case was adjourned until today.Reuse content