Railtrack and union bosses in secret talks

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The Independent Online
JIMMY KNAPP, leader of the signal workers, and Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, held secret talks in London yesterday - the first time the two men have met since the early stages of the strikes in June.

It is the first hopeful sign in weeks, but both sides tried to play down the significance of the talks at the Grosvenor Hotel at Victoria Station. Asked last night about the discussions, Mr Knapp, clearly surprised that anyone knew of the meeting, said: 'We had a frank exchange of views where he explained his position and I explained mine - it was nothing more than that. People shouldn't get the impression that there's any more hope - the position is exactly the same as on Monday morning.'

A spokesman for Railtrack said: 'Both sides gave their views on the present situation - there's no next step arising out of this meeting. There was no movement towards a settlement and there was no movement towards arbitration.'

The meeting came on a day when it emerged that ministers had rebuffed an attempt by Railtrack to settle the signal workers' dispute and appeared willing to allow the strikes to continue indefinitely, despite growing evidence of long-term damage to the industry.

The Railtrack board, desperate for a solution, asked the Government last week if it could try to buy off some of the strikers by offering an incentive to sign a new form of contract. The Cabinet sub-committee overseeing the dispute rejected the plan.

British Rail calculates it has lost at least pounds 150m directly, around 20 per cent of its expected revenue, since the strikes started on 15 June. Some areas, however, have lost much more. One provincial train operating company - BR is now divided into 25 operating areas - reckons it has lost as much as 35 per cent of its business. 'It is no secret that people are deserting the railway in droves,' a senior BR source said.

Railtrack managers report morale to be very low. One said: 'Horton is in the pocket of the Government and there is no one prepared to try to solve this dispute - the RMT, the Government and Railtrack are all happy to see it continue.'

The Health and Safety Executive has issued warnings to Railtrack - two written and several orally - reminding it of its 'responsibility for safety' when running trains on strike days. Railtrack said the warnings were reminders and did not mean safety standards were falling on strike days.

Howard Davies, head of the Confederation of British Industry, has called on the Government to consider introducing 'refresher' strike ballots. 'It is reasonable to ask whether a 'yes' vote in a ballot should be interpreted as giving the union the right to call strikes indefinitely,' he said.

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