Rail unions say deal is out of sight as ministers admit intervening

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FURTHER industrial action was threatened yesterday by rail union leaders as the Government admitted intervening in the pay negotiations that led to yesterday's 24-hour strike.

However, both RMT, the rail union, and Railtrack, the state- owned company which employs signal staff, said they would be prepared to negotiate. Last night Acas, the conciliation service, was trying to persuade both sides to resume talks, but the union warned that there was a 'wide gap'. Jimmy Knapp, union general secretary, said: 'Last week there was a short distance for us to travel for us to reach an agreement. Now we're not in the same country.'

Early services today are expected to be disrupted by knock-on effect from the stoppage, but the rush-hour timetable will operate with 'some gaps', British Rail said.

Mr Knapp said his members were planning another day- long stoppage next Wednesday in the absence of a 'serious approach' from management, and other 24-hour strikes would follow.

Despite denials of government interference on Tuesday, John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, said on Radio 4's The World at One yesterday that he had contacted Railtrack late last week reminding management of the Government's freeze on public service pay bills. That warning came at a time when the company was apparently proposing to offer 5.7 per cent, to enable the signal staff to catch up with less skilled railway employees, in addition to 2.5 per cent agreed with other rail workers.

A senior civil servant at the Department of Transport telephoned Railtrack last Thursday to find out how the company proposed to avoid a strike and was told of the 5.7 per cent offer. Mr MacGregor met John Edmonds, chief executive of Railtrack, and two other directors the next day and 'read the riot act', according to one senior industry source. The Prime Minister's office denied John Major had intervened.

Railtrack was accused yesterday by authoritative industry sources of 'blundering' into the dispute. Robert Horton, the Railtrack chairman, was in France last week when critical negotiations were taking place and David Armstrong, personnel director, was in St Lucia in the West Indies, celebrating his silver wedding.

Mr Horton returned on Monday to chair the board meeting which agreed to offer the 4,700 signal operators only a 2.5 per cent rise with the commitment to further negotiations on 'self-financing' productivity payments. Mr Armstrong returned on Tuesday, after the union had rejected the offer.

A management document leaked to the union was released yesterday in which Railtrack appears to confirm RMT's contention that 5.7 per cent was on offer to restore 'differentials' between signalling staff and platform workers. Railtrack has denied any 'formal offer'.

The union said support among its members for yesterday's strike was virtually '100 per cent'. Railtrack said 1,100 non-union signal box personnel worked normally.

Roads were only slightly busier than during normal rush hours. A handful of rail services ran, including Inter-City trains between London and Derby and Nottingham, and some commnuter services.

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