Rail union signals weeks of chaos

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The Independent Online
A LONG and bitter rail dispute seemed certain last night as signal workers' leaders gave notice that today's shutdown will be followed by two more 24-hour strikes.

Notice was served of stoppages next Wednesday and the following Wednesday as the management revealed plans to run twice as many trains today as it did during the day-long strike last week.

The rail dispute is rapidly becoming the main focus of political conflict, with the Government declaring its determination to resist union demands. Any claim that ministers are not closely involved has been abandoned: Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, the company which owns the industry's infrastructure, acknowledged yesterday that he is in daily contact with the Government.

In furious Commons exchanges, Margaret Beckett accused the Prime Minister's Office of having 'meddled in the dispute' and added: 'This dispute wouldn't be happening if the negotiations hadn't been sabotaged by the Government.'

Mr Major admitted that a member of his policy unit, Gill Rutter, had attended a Railtrack meeting on Friday to keep a 'watching brief' but he branded Mrs Beckett as the 'striker's friend'. Continuing to insist that his policy unit had taken no part in the negotiations, Mr Major added: 'You cannot hide the fact that you will not condemn a strike that puts hundreds of thousands of commuters at risk.'

Last night, Railtrack sent letters to 4,600 staff explaining the offer rejected by the RMT transport union. Management hopes those who will gain from the proposal will eventually form an effective opposition to the union's strategy.

Early yesterday, after six hours of talks, union leaders rejected a package which offered pay increases in return for new working practices, but which failed to address the union's insistence on compensation for past productiviy improvements. Management said that while signal box staff might lose money under the proposal, 75 per cent would gain. However, Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, the signal workers' union, said that Railtrack's offer was 'derisory' and that he calculated average earnings of a signal worker would rise from pounds 324.93 a week to pounds 328.94. That would still be less than for British Rail manual workers and for employees of London Underground.

'I hope the public will recognise that the responsibility lies firmly with the Government and Railtrack,' he added.

Mr Horton said the 'restructuring' package tabled at the conciliation service Acas yesterday before the peace talks collapsed was 'absolutely essential to the industry'. Later he said that any deal would have to be self-financing: 'We are not actually in the business of fuelling inflation.'

He told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: 'The Government has said it wants to keep downward pressure on pay. The Government is a 100 per cent shareholder in Railtrack and I, as chairman of Railtrack, would be extremely foolish to ignore that.'

the new offer would sweep away 'decades of outworn practices'.

The Government was clearly preparing for a long dispute. Downing Street confirmed that a Cabinet Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Wakeham had met on Monday to review the dispute and that it would meet again as the need arose.

While ministers claim that the rail dispute will rebound politically on Labour, Opposition politicians are determined to press home the message to commuters that without intervention by the Government the dispute would have been settled.

Railtrack hopes to run 1,000 trains today, compared with the 15,000 which normally operate.