Last-minute talks to avert train strike as report lays blame on Railtrack for chaos

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The Independent Online

Talks aimed at averting the strike that has affected thousands of travellers in the South will resume today after a failure to reach agreement.

Officials of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union will meet managers from South West Trains under the conciliation service ACAS after talks yesterday lasting nine hours failed to break the deadlock.

Further disruption to services across southern England and into London's Waterloo Station is threatened tomorrow and Tuesday unless the dispute can be settled today.

The Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers, returns to the country to face protests over his decision to go ahead with a holiday in India in spite of the misery facing passengers

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that he is expected to be criticised for his handling of the fiasco on Britain's rail network in a report by the House of Commons' Transport subcommittee.

However, the Labour-led committee will pull its punches against Mr Byers and direct most of its fire at Railtrack and the train-operating companies for the disastrous state of the rail services. The MPs will also voice concerns about safety risks caused by overcrowding.

"Byers is not blameless. There will be criticism of his department for presiding over the mess and pouring money down the drain," said a committee source.

The draft report, which is to be studied by the committee this week, is also expected to hold back from calling for the renationalisation of Railtrack, although that would be popular with many Labour MPs.

Instead, the final report is expected to call for the number of train-operating companies to be reduced to end the fragmentation of the industry.

Anne McIntosh, one of the two Tory MPs on the committee, attacked Mr Byers for failing to protect Railtrack shareholders, who are seeking billions in compensation for the slump in their shares.

The Railtrack Shareholders Action Group on Friday issued a fresh threat of court action if Mr Byers fails to meet next Friday's deadline for disclosing ministerial documents.

Senior Labour sources dismissed report that Tony Blair had lost patience with Mr Byers and intended to sack him.

A strategic plan for the railways, to be published on 14 January, is likely to herald a radical shake-up of the industry, merging some train operators. Richard Bowker, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, denies that local services will be replaced by buses.

In a separate move, Mr Byers is expected to hand back one of the franchises for London Underground to the city's mayor, Ken Livingstone.