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Rail union rebuffs offer of peace talks

RAILTRACK yesterday offered to meet the RMT for five days of intensive negotiations to solve the rail signalmen's dispute, but the suggestion was dismissed by the union last night.

The offer was made by Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, to Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, in an apparent attempt to increase pressure on the union. Mr Horton, aware of criticism that the two sides are not working hard enough to solve the dispute, seized the initiative after a ballot of RMT supervisors voted against striking. He said: 'I am offering Jimmy Knapp five days of intensive negotiation. We are prepared to sit down and throw away the key until we get a complete agreement on a restructuring package.'

He added that if the RMT was not prepared to 'sit down away from the glare of publicity and agree a restructuring package' then it should hold another ballot of the 4,600 signalmen. The offer was dismissed as irrelevant by the RMT last night. The advantage from Mr Horton's point of view is that the reaction makes the union look negative about solving the dispute.

But in a letter to the Railtrack chairman, Mr Knapp said: 'This dispute is not about restructuring. If you cannot grasp this eight weeks into the dispute, it is little wonder no progress has been made towards a solution.'

The RMT was already on the defensive after its supervisor members, who have been manning signal boxes on strike days, voted against joining the dispute.

The next strikes by signalmen are planned for next Friday, followed by a 48-hour strike on the following Monday and Tuesday.

The RMT wants to discuss basic pay first and sort out restructuring later. Although the union knows it will not get its original claim of 11 per cent, it would not settle for anything less than the 5.7 per cent rise tabled and then withdrawn, after government pressure, in June.

The current formal Railtrack offer is 6 per cent, which would not be 'consolidated' to extend to overtime - which accounts for about half signalmen's pay. The offer is worth 3 per cent on overall earnings. Added to this is 2.5 per cent available to the whole rail industry and a pounds 250 lump sum for abandoning cash payments.

Railtrack has indicated to Acas, the arbitration service, that it might be prepared to consolidate half the 6 per cent. This would increase it to 4.7 per cent in real terms, bringing it to within 1 per cent of the June offer and making the whole package worth 7.2 per cent. But this would be tied to a restructuring and productivity deal.