Rail union agrees to talks after 'breakthrough'

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FRESH peace talks aimed at ending the seven-week-old rail dispute are to be held within the next 48 hours. Signal workers started their first 48-hour strike at noon yesterday.

Leaders of the RMT transport union and Railtrack are expected to resume negotiations either today or tomorrow in an attempt to call an end to one of the most damaging public sector disputes this decade.

British Rail said around 4,000 trains would run today - the best service on a strike day since the stoppages began on 15 June. Tomorrow short-haul services are likely to get back to normal before inter-city trains.

Replying to a management initiative last night, the RMT union expressed its readiness to get back to negotiations immediately. Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, told Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack:'If you are saying - and I think you are - that you are ready and willing to return to the negotiating table without constraint and preconditions, we are more than willing to resume talks.' Senior union officials were last night calling their full negotiating team back to London so that talks can resume at the conciliation service Acas.

Mr Knapp's comments followed statements from management and Dr Brian Mawhinney, the new Transport Secretary, urging new talks to end the dispute, which has already subjected travellers to six 24-hour strikes.

Union negotiators last night interpreted a statement sent to the RMT yesterday by Mr Horton as an olive branch.

In it Mr Horton said that he was prepared to negotiate on an 'upfront' management package of 2.5 per cent, which is on offer throughout the industry, a 6 per cent unconsolidated rise in return for a commitment to new efficiency measures and a pounds 250 lump sum for giving up the right to be paid in cash.

Officials at RMT argued that management's readiness to negotiate on the 6 per cent figure was a breakthrough. The union is demanding an initial payment for past improvements in productivity but Railtrack is saying it will concede an increase only if RMT agrees fresh efficiency measures.

Dr Mawhinney on Monday night registered an eagerness to see talks resumed and Mr Horton said yesterday that there were no 'no-go areas'.

All sides last night recognised that any deal would have to fall within the Government's public sector pay policy, which dictates that any increase will have to be paid for out of savings.

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