BR plans to run more trains as unions attack safety standards: Management hopes to increase number of trains running to one in four during sixth one-day strike by RMT. Barrie Clement reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BRITISH RAIL plans to run one in four trains today during the sixth 24-hour stoppage by signal workers as train drivers yesterday joined the condemnation of safety standards on strike days.

BR's management said that about 3,800 services would run, with many operating for the first time, such as London King's Cross to Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, and Gillingham, Kent, to London Victoria.

It is the sixth consecutive occasion that BR has increased the number of services available during the industrial action.

But leaders of the train drivers' union, Aslef, said that Railtrack was playing 'Russian roulette' with the safety of passengers and staff and called for a public inquiry. Lew Adams, leader of Aslef, said signal boxes were being staffed by supervisors who were not properly qualified or who had 'not been near the signalling system for years'.

He said drivers who feared for their lives and those of passengers were being forced to operate trains because of laws preventing 'secondary' industrial action.

However, the industry's most senior safety officer told Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT transport union, that inspectors had found nothing to jeopardise public safety.

Stan Robertson, Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways for the Health and Safety Executive, said there had been 'some errors' in record-keeping and 'advice' had been issued to management.

Mr Robertson's staff had drawn Railtrack's attention to long hours worked by supervisors and managers who staff signal boxes on strike days, but he pointed out that there were no statutory limits.

Mr Knapp said it was clear that there would have to be a 'major accident' before the inspectorate would investigate and the union would now consider applying for an injunction.

The Health and Safety Executive denied Mr Knapp's allegation that its powers were 'woefully inadequate'. The executive said that if a breach of the law was uncovered, inspectors would have no hesitation in using their considerable enforcement powers to stop operations. They might consider prosecution if necessary. Fresh allegations made by unions would be investigated, the HSE said.

Unions claimed that safety standards had been breached in incidents at York, Leeds, Crewe, Southend, Llandudno and Clapham and there was a near miss between two empty trains near Edinburgh. Some supervisors had been passed as competent to control services after 'literally minutes' in the signal box.

On 13 July, at Kirkdale on Merseyside, a pedestrian was trapped between the barriers on a level crossing operated by managers who had been working for 16 hours, RMT said.

No talks were in prospect yesterday over RMT's claim for a payment for productivity improvements already achieved. Railtrack has offered a 3 per cent rise in return for fresh efficiency measures.

Union leaders have called a 48-hour strike next week between noon on Tuesday and noon on Thursday, a 24-hour strike the following Wednesday and two further days of action in the week beginning 7 August.

Leading article, page 13