Acas offers talks to settle rail dispute: Barrie Clement looks at the prospects for peace as a third strike looms

TALKS aimed at averting Wednesday's third 24-hour stoppage by railway signal workers are expected to start in London today following an invitation from the conciliation service Acas.

But given the deep divisions, resumption of negotiations may have come too late to prevent this week's strike.

This morning, the annual conference in Liverpool of the RMT, the signal staff's union, is likely to give its approval to fresh talks, but delegates are sceptical about management's ability to deliver a settlement after the Government's admission of its close involvement. The threat of industrial action will not be lifted pending a conciliation process in which Acas officials will act as 'go-betweens'.

The union has already given notice of another strike on Wednesday week and there is a possibilty that signal box supervisors, who have helped to provide a skeleton service during the dispute, will also be balloted on industrial action.

Railtrack, the state-owned company which runs the industry's infrastructure, has indicated its readiness to negotiate over a package presented to the union in discussions last Tuesday.

However, in the wake of ministerial intervention, management is unlikely to give ground over its refusal to reward the 4,500 signal workers for productivity gains over the past six years. John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, vetoed an informal offer that would have given signal box personnel 5.7 per cent for past efficiency improvements. Leaders of RMT have argued that fresh productivity changes proposed by Railtrack would produce more than the pounds 4m saving calculated by management. If that contention were accepted, the company would be able to offer the signal workers a bigger rise than the pounds 4 a week average increase that union officials say is now on the table. The Government is insisting that, under its public sector pay policy, all wage and salary increases must be funded by economies.

The company's reputation for incompetence among union negotiators was reinforced at the weekend when Railtrack admitted that it had underestimated some of the pay rises that would result from its package of proposals.

Management wrongly said that some signal operators faced an average drop in earnings of pounds 2,686, when the true figure was pounds 1,025. Railtrack also calculated that one grade would suffer a drop of pounds 1,340 when, in fact, there would be a rise of pounds 172.

The company believes that its present offer will deliver increases for 75 per cent of the employees concerned and pledged that others would be compensated. Railtrack said last night that the company was 'definitely' returning to Acas for talks today and appealed to the union to join them.

A senior RMT official said that the union had always made clear its readiness to solve the dispute through negotiation. 'The matter will be reported to our conference immediately when it opens in the morning, but we see no reason why we should not be able to respond to Acas and resume conciliation.'

National officers of the RMT said yesterday that the union was considering legal action over claimed breaches of safety during last Wednesday's stoppage when some managers allegedly took over signal boxes in localities with which they were not familiar. Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, said technicians working on the track did not know whether they were working in safe conditions. Mr Knapp has already sent a letter to the Railway Inspectorate attacking Railtrack for presiding over alleged breaches in safety.