Company accused of compromising safety

UNION leaders are expected to meet Britain's most senior rail safety official this week as increasingly serious allegations are made about breaches to procedures when signal staff are on strike, writes Barrie Clement.

One supervisor in the north- west of England, a member of the TSSA white-collar union, told the Independent that a number of colleagues had been asked to work in boxes where they had no detailed local knowledge. 'Managers are hell-bent on breaking the strike and I am afraid of the lengths they will go to. It is almost as if they have taken leave of their senses.'

The RMT transport union accused Railtrack of reducing standards to a new low by pressing unqualified supervisors and inspectors into service, under threat of dismissal.

An internal note to supervisors from a Railtrack production manager said the company had reviewed its strategy and was now preparing to issue 'letters of authority' to supervisors to work signal boxes. Until last week, Railtrack had largely adhered to procedures which dictate that staff have to countersign a certificate of competence before operating a specific signal box.

The Railtrack memorandum said they would be expected to work in any box where 'they were considered to have the necessary competence'. A critical part of the company's strategy is to keep increasing the number of services available during industrial action, partly for passengers' benefit and partly to undermine the confidence of strikers.

Union leaders have compiled a dossier of incidents which they believe demonstrates that some substitute signal operators are not competent. Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT, is hoping to hand the document to the chief inspector of railways this week.

Union officials said that if the Railway Inspectorate - part of the Health and Safety Executive - proves unhelpful they will seek an injunction against Railtrack. The HSE said all allegations would be investigated.

A company spokesman yesterday denied the claims. 'Railtrack always insists that safety-critical criteria have been observed.'

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