Rail chaos: more strikes on way

Three new stoppages planned; 1,600 services hit in the north; Pressure increases on Byers
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The Independent Online

Britain's rail network faced a new wave of industrial unrest last night as strikes spread among members of the network's biggest union, raising pressure on the beleaguered Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers.

Commuters into Waterloo station in London are to be hit by more disruption – and guards on services in northern England also voted by 15 to one to walk out over a pay dispute.

The RMT rail union announced two 48-hour strikes on Arriva Trains Northern, together with another two-day stoppage – identical to yesterday's – on South West Trains. Thousands of passengers on both networks will be affected by industrial action on 24 and 25 January – customers who use Arriva services will then suffer a second two-day strike on 5 and 6 February.

The disputes at both companies centre on the widening gulf in pay between drivers and other staff – an issue that threatens to cause conflict elsewhere on the network.

And, despite Mr Byers' insistence that the Government would not intervene, it is understood that Keith Hill, Labour's deputy chief whip and a former transport minister and RMT political officer, is being used as a go-between in an attempt to bring the two sides together.

More than 600 guards belonging to the RMT at Arriva, which operates in the Leeds conurbation and as far north as Carlisle and Newcastle, voted by 429 to 28 to take industrial action.

The guards' dispute comes after a 17 per cent pay increase was awarded to drivers in an attempt to stop them leaving for higher wages elsewhere. Arriva had been forced to introduce an emergency timetable to cope with driver shortages.

At South West Trains (SWT), where there is a similar dispute, management announced it was to "impose" a pay increase worth 7.6 per cent over 18 months. Vernon Hince, the acting general secretary of the RMT, pointed out the offer was lower than had been tabled previously and calculated that the deal was worth 4.2 per cent in real terms. "It is an insult to the union and my members," said Mr Hince, who claimed SWT never had any intention of negotiating seriously.

He said: "The company did not have the courtesy to contact the union before making the announcement about the imposition of the pay deal to the media this morning.

"I have never known such arrogance in all my years in the rail industry."

SWT management and the union have also failed to resolve a dispute over the alleged victimisation of hardline RMT activists.

Passengers on SWT endured another day of travel misery yesterday as more than 2,000 RMT members staged the second of two 48-hour strikes that was due to end at midnight last night.

A spokeswoman for SWT said the management was "very disappointed" that the union had ordered fresh disruption. "We remain convinced that our pay award, which is several times the rate of inflation and the best in the industry, is more than fair. We hope our staff will recognise this and accept we have acted in good faith to bring this damaging dispute to an end."

The spokeswoman said the operator ran almost 400 trains yesterday – double the number of trains that ran on the first day of the first 48-hour strike last week. The company normally operates about 1,700 services a day across the South-east and into Waterloo. Arriva has said it would be available for further talks with the union.

Mr Byers said he would not intervene in the disputes although he said he understood the "anger and frustration" of rail users hit by delays and cancellations. He urged the unions and the train companies to resolve their differences and to put the interest of the travelling public first.

Theresa May, the shadow Transport Secretary, said the RMT had shown "yet more irresponsible behaviour" by causing continued disruption to passengers. She said: "It is a sign of the ongoing chaos on the nation's railways, over which Stephen Byers is presiding and refusing to intervene."

Tony Blair used a party political broadcast last night to insist he had not taken his eye off public service reform, despite his round of diplomatic visits to shore up the coalition against international terrorism.

He defended Britain's role in the US-led Afghan attacks, but pointedly focused on health, education and transport.

He said: "We can be immensely proud of the part Britain and Britain's troops played and still play in that conflict. But I never forget for a moment why we were elected as a government, and that was to put right our public services: education, the NHS, crime, transport."

A Labour Party spokeswoman denied the broadcast had been produced in response to claims that Mr Blair had neglected domestic reform since 11 September, insisting that the broadcast had been filmed before Christmas.

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