Acas talks on rail dispute to resume: As both parties in the signalmen's pay row seek a solution, Barrie Clement argues that a potential deal is close

NEW talks aimed at ending the signal workers' dispute will take place today - two days before the fifth 24-hour strike is again set to bring to a halt most of the rail network.

The Rail union, RMT, and Railtrack, the state-owned company that runs the industry's infrastructure, yesterday accepted an invitation from Acas, the conciliation service, to meet for discussions.

The dispute is potentially much closer to settlement than public pronouncements would have us believe.

Superficially the positions of both sides are mutually exclusive. In media interviews Jimmy Knapp, the RMT leader, emphasises his demand for an 'upfront' payment for past productivity improvements without a mention of concessions. Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, is insisting on sweeping changes.

Today's talks will be the first at Acas since the last sessions ended without agreement on 28 June. A Railtrack spokeswoman said that the company was 'hopeful of making progress'.

The meeting comes days after Railtrack had met RMT requests for detailed information about company proposals, which included a 'restructuring package' on pay, she said. The information had been provided on Friday. 'We regarded that request for information as a positive stop.'

An RMT spokesman said: 'While we hope we can take things forward, it would be wrong at this stage to be optimistic.'

Behind that position, the union has hinted that it is prepared to bargain. The dispute is really about how much RMT is prepared to concede and what those new working practices are worth to Railtrack.

An indication that it was prepared to give ground in order to win an interim payment, came before the month- old dispute began. There were productivity strings attached to the 5.7 per cent informal offer that was seemingly removed from the table on the insistence of ministers. The union said then it was prepared to negotiate on the basis of that formula.

The final deal is expected to involve a timetable similar to that envisaged in an offer rejected by the union. 'Upfront' would be an initial, and possibly temporary, payment - for which RMT will undoubtedly have to make immediate concessions. The red meat of the peace formula, which the union would have to sign before winning any rise, would be a commitment to a radical structure of payments and grades.

The system would involve much higher rates of basic pay and abolition of most of the add-on allowances that enable average signal workers to double their money.

The critical calculation, however, will be made by Treasury officials who will advise ministers on whether any additional money for the 4,600 signal workers can genuinely be paid out of savings.

The settlement will have to be squeaky clean from the point of view of the Government, which is insisting that all public-sector pay bills are frozen.