Acas tries to restart peace talks in railway signal dispute: Discussions unlikely to prevent five days of disruption by signal workers

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The Independent Online
BOTH SIDES in the rail signal workers' dispute held talks with the conciliation service Acas yesterday and discussions will continue today to see whether there is a basis to restart formal negotiations.

But a quick resolution of the two- month-old dispute is unlikely and the five-day period of disruption to services which is due to start at midnight tomorrow looks increasingly likely to go ahead.

Acas said last night: 'We are not yet in a position to say whether there is a basis for joint talks. Because of the complexity of this we are still feeling our way.'

Derek Evans, the chief conciliation officer, and another Acas official spent two hours at the headquarters of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union yesterday morning. The RMT outlined its concern about Railtrack's failure to provide more details of its offer. Afterwards the RMT said: 'We put our position that we do not understand how much of the offer Railtrack is prepared to consolidate. We want to clarify the position through Acas because we could not get the answer from Railtrack.' It said that union had put forward 'a number of constructive proposals for solving the dispute' but declined to go into details.

Later the Acas officials went to Railtrack's headquarters. After the meeting the company was pessimistic about an early resumption of talks as the union wants its interim claim settled before an overall restructuring deal is reached. Acas will try again with both sides today but, despite some cautious optimism from the union yesterday, it will not be easy to get negotiations started, let alone find a settlement to the dispute.

Railtrack has offered a 6 per cent rise on basic pay and hinted last week that it might be prepared to consolidate half this so that it applies to overtime and allowances which make up almost half signal worker's total earnings. This would mean the offer would be worth 4.7 per cent on total earnings, instead of 3 per cent and would take it to within negotiating distance of the 5.7 per cent offer accepted by the RMT in June but withdrawn at government insistence.

But the union wants to negotiate this interim claim first as payment for past productivity. Railtrack regards it as an integral part of a deal that would radically restructure future working practices. The 4,600 signal workers will strike for 24 hours from midnight tomorrow and for 48 hours on Monday and Tuesday. As this will affect services over the weekend it means that trains will be disrupted for five days.

This is the longest disruption since the dispute began and both sides may regard it as a crucial trial of strength. Railtrack will hope to increase the 36 per cent of normal services that it ran in the last 24-hour strike, while the union wants to show that its members are still solidly behind the action.