Today's rail strike may signal yet more disruption

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The Independent Online
THE THIRD 24-hour rail strike in three weeks will bring services to a virtual standstill today. Negotiations broke down last night after 10 hours.

Chances of averting another stoppage next Wednesday also looked slim after leaders of 4,600 signal staff rejected a compromise tabled by management. There were no plans for further talks and employees' leaders returning from the negotiations in London to the annual conference of the RMT transport union in Liverpool could face demands that the industrial action be intensified. There could be two day-long stoppages a week and technicians who help British Rail to provide a skeleton service during the strikes may be balloted on industrial action.

Railtrack, the state-owned company that runs the industry's infrastructure, offered the union 6 per cent on basic pay 'up front' in return for accepting sweeping changes in working methods. A further pounds 200 lump sum would be available for accepting that employees would no longer be paid in cash. Vernon Hince, chief union negotiator, said that management had failed to address the RMT's demand for compensation for productivity improvements already achieved.

David Armstrong, human resources director at Railtrack, said he was very disappointed that conciliation had broken down, but would be sending employees full details of the offer. He said it was an attempt to bridge the gap between management's position and the union's insistence on an 11 per cent rise for efficiencies already achieved.

Mr Hince said the union had achieved no breakthrough in more than 20 hours of negotiations in the past two days. 'The dispute goes on,' he said. While the company was offering a 6 per cent 'non-consolidated' increase, that would mean just 3 per cent on basic rates.

British Rail predicted that about 1,500 out of 15,000 services would operate today with the help of managers and supervisors. Last Wednesday, 1,000 trains ran; only 500 ran during the first strike.

Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, said signal workers had not the 'slightest justification' for disrupting services. He told Radio 4's The World at One they had already been offered the 2.5 per cent available throughout the industry. It was 'absurd' to argue that they were entitled to 11 per cent for past productivity.

Special services expected to run today for the first time during the current industrial action include: through trains from London Paddington to Plymouth, with connecting services to branch line destinations; trains linking Manchester, Bolton, Preston and Manchester airport; trains linking Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Companies 'fining' employees a day's pay for failing to turn up to work today may be infringing the law. James Davies, of the solicitors Lewis Silkin, said that as long as staff were 'ready and willing' to go to work they had a right to be paid. While the case for salaried staff was a strong one, that on behalf of hourly-paid workers was open to argument.