Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, has won backing from the Cabinet committee dealing with the stoppages for a new attempt to settle the two-month-old dispute. At a meeting last week Dr Mawhinney is thought to have impressed on Railtrack's chairman, Bob Horton, his desire for a solution.
A sub-committee of the RMT transport union is due to meet tomorrow and is expected to agree to talks, either face to face with Railtrack or through the mediation body Acas, to establish whether a new offer is available. Reports in the middle of last week of a new offer were not followed up by any detailed proposals from Railtrack.
Ministers and Railtrack officials believe the rejection of industrial action by signalling supervisors in a ballot last week presents an opportunity to resolve the dispute.
That decision has taken some of the pressure off Railtrack, which should be able to keep about a third of the network open despite the strikes.
But management of the dispute is still proving highly contentious with Cabinet hawks, including Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, arguing that any pay offer must not be allowed to set a precedent to other public sector workers. He is keen to delay any concessions until later in the pay round to reduce any 'knock-on effect'.
Mr Portillo is also thought to be more sympathetic to the 'Reagan option', whereby strikers would be sacked in the same way as American air traffic controllers were when they took industrial action in the early 1980s.
This possibility has been discussed by the Cabinet committee and, internally, by Railtrack. However it has not won the support of Mr Horton and has been shelved by ministers, who see it only as a last resort.
Sir Bob Reid, the British Rail chairman, has held unofficial talks with both sides and appears to be emerging as an 'honest broker' in the dispute.
Yesterday Brian Wilson, Labour's rail spokesman, said: 'It would be crazy if the next few days are spent in posturing rather than serious negotiation free from political interference. This is the week in which there should be movement.
'The train operating companies must start applying more pressure on Railtrack for a settlement - they are the ones to whom Railtrack owes a direct responsibility.'Reuse content