London Underground last night won a High Court injunction to prevent the train drivers' union Aslef staging a 24-hour strike tomorrow.
The Aslef executive is today expected to obey the order and call off the stoppage, but services could still be disrupted by members of RMT, the largest union, who last night expressed their anger over the ruling.
Mr Justice Rix, hearing the application at his home in St John's Wood, north London, decided that the stoppage by Aslef could be unlawful in the wake of a decision yesterday to improve a pay offer from 2.75 per cent to three per cent.
The Tube's management pointed out that Aslef's strike ballot paper called for industrial action to achieve "an improved offer".
The state-owned company argued that it had met that criterion and the union would now have to reballot its members if it wanted to take industrial action.
London Underground took no action against RMT because the ballot paper was less specific, saying that strike action would be taken as part of its pursuit of pay negotiations.
A spokesman for Tube management said the company regretted resorting to litigation, but had a duty to ensure that the best possible service was provided.
If RMT today decides to press ahead with the strike in the absence of Aslef, the Tube management could still be able to provide a skeleton service tomorrow. Most of the drivers belong to Aslef and management grades would perform the station duties normally carried out by RMT members.
While management yesterday increased the pay offer to match a proposal tabled by British Rail, London Underground refused to grant similar assurances about a reduction in the working week.
Senior officials at Aslef said the union was seeking a commitment to reduce the working week to 35 hours. At RMT, the largest union at London Underground, sources were pessimistic about the chances of a settlement. "A few months ago three per cent may have been enough, but now management will have to put something else on the table." It is understood that train crews in particular are dissatisfied with a new system whereby they are on call during meal breaks, but not paid.
While the Aslef stoppage was due to begin at midnight tonight, RMT members have been told not to report for duty if their shifts begin after 7.30pm this evening.
Ann Burfitt, human resources director at London Underground, said the increase was "sizeable" and the additional quarter of a per cent would add pounds 1m to the pay bill.
London Underground pointed out that a joint working party had been set up on working hours and management were prepared to enter negotiations "with an open mind".