Rail strike off, but there's still travel misery ahead

Engineering work will hit journeys over Easter after walkout is ruled unlawful
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The Independent Online

A four-day national strike that would have brought the rail network to a halt on the day the general election is due to be called was cancelled yesterday after being ruled unlawful.

The stoppage by signallers, due to start on Tuesday, was put on hold after Network Rail won a temporary injunction against the walkout at the High Court. The decision was greeted with relief in Downing Street, which feared the strike was a politically motivated move designed to anger commuters just as Gordon Brown calls the election.

The judge, Mrs Justice Sharp, granted a temporary injunction against the strike called by the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union after Network Rail voiced concerns about the way it balloted its members. The RMT must hold a new vote and set a later date should industrial action be agreed again. Network Rail's lawyers successfully argued that flaws in the original vote meant the union "fell short in multiple respects" of fulfilling its obligations under the law.

RMT signallers backed the stoppage by a slender majority of 54 per cent. However, Network Rail said there were considerable "inaccuracies and deficiencies" in the voting process, alleging that the RMT failed to ballot staff at 26 signal boxes. It said there were 67 locations at which the number of votes cast exceeded the number of RMT members registered, and that 11 signal boxes which did not exist had been balloted.

A separate dispute involving maintenance workers was not affected by yesterday's court ruling. But their planned walkout next week will cause only minor problems, while action by signallers would have crippled the network until Friday. Most services will now run as normal.

The RMT had planned to strike over Network Rail's plans to cut 1,500 jobs and increase evening and weekend maintenance work. The order against the union follows a similar legal challenge to a strike planned by cabin crew at British Airways. Motoring organisations predict between 17 and 20 million cars to be on the roads during the holiday period.

Bob Crow, the RMT leader, said the court ruling was an "attack on the whole trade union movement". "Workers fighting for the principle of a safe railway have had the whole weight of the law thrown against them," he said, adding that the union's executive would meet to recommend a re-ballot.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, also suggested that the courts were turning against unions. "It is becoming increasingly easy for employers, unhappy at the prospect of a dispute, to rely on the courts to intervene and nullify a democratic ballot for industrial action on a mere technicality," he said.

Robin Gisby, head of operations at Network Rail, warned that, while the strike had been delayed, talks would have to continue to avoid a future walkout by the RMT. "This is good news for the millions of passengers who rely on us every day," he said. "A dispute with the unions remains, however, and we have a responsibility to our people to continue talking to the unions to find a settlement that works for us all."

Despite the cancellation of the train strike, this weekend's Easter getaway is still expected to be disrupted by railway engineering works, foul weather and roads maintenance programmes.

Forecasters say a cold night will be followed by wind and rain over the weekend, while 21,000 homes in Northern Ireland and Scotland still remain without power after heavy snowfalls earlier this week.