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BR says 3,000 trains will run in fifth strike: MacGregor warned Railtrack against 5.7% offer

BRITISH RAIL predicted that at least 20 per cent of the normal 15,000 train services would operate today despite the fifth 24-hour strike by signal workers.

That is six times better than the first day-long stoppage five weeks ago and means that about 3,000 trains will run, compared with 1,700 last week. Signal boxes are being operated by managers and supervisors, many of whom believe that they would be disciplined if they refused to break the strike.

A 13-hour session of negotiations at the conciliation service Acas broke down yesterday with no sign of further talks. The only new offer from management was that employees would receive a pounds 250 lump sum for relinquishing the right to be paid in cash, rather than the pounds 200 previously offered.

The executive of the RMT transport union meets tomorrow to plan extended industrial action. After next week's scheduled 24-hour strike, the union has warned that it will escalate disruption to two days a week. Senior RMT officials argue that 24-hour strikes on Mondays and Fridays would be the most popular with the travelling public.

At a meeting of the House of Commons employment committee yesterday, John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, made it clear that he warned Railtrack against a pay offer for signal workers which could have averted the five-week-old dispute.

While Mr MacGregor said that he did not 'veto' the 5.7 per cent increase, he simply added that he did not use the word veto. He insisted that he did not get involved in 'detailed negotiations'.

Mr MacGregor confirmed that he met Railtrack directors who were seeking clarification of public-sector pay policy on the Friday before disruption began. He conceded that a 5.7 per cent settlement was discussed. The company had been reminded of the Government's policy of freezing public-sector pay bills on a number of occasions, the minister said. The following Monday, two days before the first strike, the idea was dropped.

Robert Horton, chairman of Railtrack, the state-owned company which owns the industry's infrastructure, had frequently emphasised that ministers' attitude to wages was consistent with his own commercial approach, the committee was told.

Mr MacGregor denied that Mr Horton was an instrument of government policy. 'He would refute that strongly and so would I,' he said.

Mr MacGregor said signal workers had received a 47 per cent increase in real terms between 1980 and 1993, compared with 14 per cent for manual employees and 37 per cent in the economy generally. Some of that 47 per cent was in return for productivity improvements which the union claims has gone unrewarded.

The industry had lost pounds 40m so far because of the dispute and this would be subtracted from funds earmarked for capital investment, he said.

Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT, said Railtrack had been unable to negotiate with any flexibility, adding that its ideas appeared to have been set in concrete on the orders of Department of Transport. Mr Knapp said that the company was under-estimating the savings that would accrue from suggested changes to working practices.

The offer on the table would mean an increase in earnings of less than 4 per cent. For that, for signalling workers would be expected to accept a wide range of productivity measures, including working Sunday as part of the standard week and 12-hour shifts, which gave far more ground to management than they were prepared to accept, he said.