Escalating rail strike will test resolve on all sides

BOTH sides in the signal workers' dispute yesterday dug in for a long war of attrition in a conflict which is developing into the most damaging industrial action in the public sector for a decade.

The decision by RMT transport union leaders to include two 48- hour strikes in their campaign will test the signal workers' resolve, and try the patience of commuters who have so far been relatively well-disposed towards the strikers.

Management attitudes have hardened since the escalation was disclosed on Thursday night and there are no negotiations in prospect. Senior sources at Railtrack made clear yesterday their determination not to re-enter talks unless the union was prepared to negotiate on a productivity package.

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the union, said the company was refusing to address signal workers' claims for an 'upfront' payment for improvements in efficiency already achieved.

Railtrack yesterday decided to intensify its 'hearts and minds' campaign to break the deadlock, setting up more 'hot lines' to explain its offer, which is worth about 3 per cent.

Leaders of RMT have called a 24-hour strike next week, a 48- hour stoppage from noon on Tuesday 26 July to noon on Thursday 28 July; another day-long walkout the following week and a further 48-hour strike in the week beginning 7 August.

Senior railway officials said yesterday that the first 48-hour action could cause disruption from Tuesday morning to Thursday evening. Morning commuter services on the Tuesday should be normal, but long-distance services could be cancelled some time before the strike is due to begin because staff and rolling stock will need to be back at home base before the action begins.

By Thursday evening commuter services should be back to timetable, but long-haul trains will still be disrupted because some rolling stock will be in the wrong place.

A Railtrack spokesman described the announcement that RMT was to hold a strike ballot among 300 signal box supervisors as 'sabre rattling'. The company believes supervisors would vote against industrial action, but, if not, it would be at least a month before they could strike.

Business leaders warned yesterday that the continuing rail strike was costing British industry millions of pounds and damaging the economy. The Institute of Directors said that the reputation of British business was being damaged and its productivity adversely affected.

The Government paid a legal firm, Linklaters & Paines, pounds 5.5m for advice on rail privatisation, according to a Labour Party report. That was more than the cost of Railtrack's pay offer to signal workers which ministers vetoed, Frank Dobson, Labour's transport spokesman, said.