Biggest railway strike since 1990s looms

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The Independent Online

The threat of a national rail strike at Easter came closer yesterday as Network Rail revealed it had drawn up contingency plans to deal with a walk-out by thousands of workers.

Ballot results due to be announced tomorrow and Friday could spark the biggest outbreak of industrial action on the railways since the mid-1990s as rows over job cuts, changes to working practices and pay come to a head.

Bob Crow, leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, advised passengers not to make any rail travel arrangements for the Easter weekend. The RMT is balloting 12,000 signalling and maintenance workers in protest at plans to cut 1,500 jobs and change working practices. The result is due tomorrow, followed by a separate strike vote among 5,000 signallers to be announced next week.

The Transport Salaried Staffs Association is balloting 2,500 supervisors and other white-collar workers for strikes, also over jobs and pay, with the result due on Friday. The two unions are expected to co-ordinate any strikes.

Robin Gisby, the National Rail operations director, said he was not prepared to see the country "held to ransom" by the RMT. He said National Rail hoped to achieve the "vast majority" of the 1,500 job losses through voluntary redundancy, adding that 1,100 staff had already volunteered to leave. Compulsory layoffs could not be ruled out, although there will be none this year and the situation will be assessed at Christmas, Mr Gisby said.

Talks with unions are continuing despite the ballots, but National Rail is determined to press ahead with the changes to working practices, some of which date back to the 1950s. There are 73 separate terms and conditions affecting maintenance staff and some are now out of date, officials say. The move is part of a shake-up of the rail system aimed at saving £4bn over five years to 2014. Network Rail employs 35,000 staff and runs 2,500 stations across 21,000 miles of railway lines.

Its chief executive, Iain Coucher, said plans were in place to deal with any walkout. "The strike may happen – we hope it won't – but we have contingency plans in place and we are fairly optimistic that we will be able to run an interrupted service," he said.

"Two years ago, we had similar strikes for four days and trains ran perfectly, so we are optimistic we can deal with that, but I can absolutely assure you we will not take risks with safety."