Rail union calls 48-hour strikes: Passengers face disrupted services over three-day periods in big escalation of signal staff dispute

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TRAIN PASSENGERS face massive disruption after union leaders last night ordered two-day stoppages by signal workers and called a strike ballot among supervisors.

The RMT transport union called the first 48-hour stoppage from noon on Tuesday 26 July to noon on Thursday 28 July, which will cause chaos to timetables over three days. That will be followed by a day-long stoppage the following week and a further 48-hour strike will be announced for the week beginning 7 August. The union has already scheduled a 24-hour walkout next Wednesday.

The escalation raises the stakes in the dispute and will mean that signal staff will have lost 10 days' pay at the end of the period. The call by the 21-strong executive will test the loyalty and commitment of their members, who voted four- to-one to take industrial action. Railtrack, the state-owned company which runs the industry's infrastructure, may decide to take tougher action against strikers, perhaps including dismissals.

The ballot among nearly 700 supervisors and managers was sparked by suspensions in the Glasgow area among employees who refused to break the strike by their subordinates.

Railtrack managed to provide around a fifth of the normal 15,000 trains in last Wednesday's strike.

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, said his members fully supported the industrial action and that the escalation of the dispute was brought about by management's refusal to concede an 'up- front' payment for productivity improvements already achieved. Railtrack is insisting that any increase must depend on fresh efficiency measures.

Mr Knapp said the union remain ready to negotiate, but management would need to address the 'main issue' - the claim for an interim payment. 'I put this challenge to Railtrack today: if you are unable or unwilling to negotiate with us on this fundamental issue, tell the public why you cannot do it. They have the right to know who is responsible for blocking a settlement.'

The union believes that ministers are allowing little flexibility for management to compromise and are insisting on a rigid adherence to a strict public sector pay policy.

The RMT leader denied that the union was 'scaremongering' about the safety of services run during strike days. Mr Knapp insists that a number of managers and supervisors 'press ganged' into staffing signal boxes were unqualified to do so. The union was not satisfied with the monitoring procedures and 'spot checks' undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive. Mr Knapp was seeking an urgent meeting with the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways.

Robert Horton, chairman of Railtrack, said the RMT was 'trying to bring the country to a halt by frightening the public into staying at home'. He added: 'Let me say now that not one train will run on a strike day, or any other day, unless Railtrack is absolutely satisfied that the service meets the requirements of Railtrack's safety case.' He said he welcomed the monitoring exercise conducted by the Health and Safety Executive during the Wednesday strikes.

Earlier yesterday management indicated its readiness to withstand prolonged industrial action by signal workers and pledged that services on strike days would continue to improve.

In the wake of the fifth 24-hour stoppage on Wednesday, Mr Horton said the union knew the company would use working staff more effectively 'as the weeks go by'.

He urged the union to return to talks. 'This strike doesn't just hit Railtrack, it damages the whole industry.'

Roger Freeman, Minister for Public Transport, yesterday said the imminent privatisation of British Rail's rolling stock maintenance business was an important step in the sell-off of the industry's non-passenger operations.