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Acas clears way for talks in rail dispute: BR says one in three trains operated on second day of strike

BOTH sides in the rail dispute spent yesterday clearing the way for talks as nearly one in three trains operated during the signal workers' first 48-hour strike.

The conciliation service Acas said there was no prospect of negotiations today but officials would attempt to get the warring parties into discussions as soon as possible.

An Acas spokesman said: 'There is no point in getting people together unless we are reasonably sure that there is something to discuss.'

British Rail yesterday provided the best service on a strike day since industrial action began seven weeks ago. About 4,800 trains ran and only a few areas were without a service, according to BR.

But most routes were limited to one shift from 7am to 7pm. Today, after the strike ends at noon, management hopes to provide a 'comprehensive' service for home- bound commuters. There may be continuing disruption to long-haul trains.

Railtrack, the state-owned company which runs the industry's infrastructure, claimed one in seven signalling staff worked yesterday and 40 per cent were members of RMT, the transport union.

But management conceded there was no 'huge drift back to work'. The percentage of RMT signal staff defying the industrial action was only a 'couple of points higher', in spite of a prediction by some senior managers that employees opposed to 48-hour action would cross picket lines.

While both sides indicated their readiness on Tuesday night to start fresh talks, there was a delay yesterday as they tried to identify potential 'areas of progress'. Railtrack expressed reservation about a letter from Jimmy Knapp, the RMT leader, which emphasised the union's intention to negotiate on their claim for an 'upfront' payment for past improvements in productivity.

The company wants talks to be based on its package which awards an increase of more than 3 per cent in return for fresh efficiency measures.

One change in management's stance has been the inclusion of a 2.5 per cent increase in its proposals, which is on offer to the whole of the industry. Until now it has insisted that this rise was separate from its proposed productivity deal with signal staff. With the 2.5 per cent, management's offer is worth nearly 6 per cent.

A further 24-hour strike is scheduled to begin at noon next Wednesday - disrupting the timetable for two days - and RMT has threatened another 48-hour stoppage the following week.