Rail union faces legal battle over strike ballot

Leaders of the union behind next week's threatened rail strike will attend court to explain how signalmen purporting to work in a signal box that burnt to the ground a year ago were able to cast their votes in a strike ballot.

Network Rail claims to have uncovered enough discrepancies in the returns submitted by the RMT union to cast doubt on whether a majority of the staff involved genuinely support the decision to strike. Their lawyers are hoping to repeat the success achieved by British Airways' legal team, which secured a court order that forced the Unite union to cancel a strike by cabin crew scheduled to take place at Christmas.

The RMT has called a four-day strike starting on Tuesday next week in a dispute over proposed job cuts. The timing is a nightmare for Gordon Brown, who is expected to go to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday to tell the Queen he is calling the general election.

The ballot, carried out earlier this month, produced a 1,705 to 1,481 majority in favour of a strike after a turnout of more than 70 per cent. But Network Rail claims the discrepancies they have uncovered could affect as many as 300 votes. They say some votes were recorded as being cast by staff operating 11 signal boxes which have been closed for years, including one near Gloucester that has been abandoned since 1965 and another, in Newport, which burnt down in April 2009. The company also claims that in 67 locations the number of votes recorded was greater than the workforce, allegedly including 11 votes recorded in South Tottenham, in London, where Network Rail has only three staff. They also claim that 33 votes were cast in Crewe, where they have only 24 employees.

They also allege that 26 workplaces – such as the Rugby signal box which employs 100 staff – were not balloted at all, while 12 others were balloted despite the staff being ineligible to vote.

Robin Gisby, Network Rail's director of operations and customer services, said: "We believe we have uncovered scores of inaccuracies and discrepancies in the RMT's signallers ballot that in our view, makes it invalid."

Each of the claims will be fiercely contested by the RMT. The union's general secretary, Bob Crow, described the legal challenge yesterday as a "scandalous attempt" to use the courts to overrule a democratic vote. "RMT is putting together an experienced legal team ... and we will be mounting the most robust defence possible in the High Court against this attack by Network Rail on our internal democracy," he said.

The rail companies are putting together a provisional timetable for the four day strike, which should be available online by lunchtime today. The worst affected sections will be the commuter routes and rural lines, which have a large number of signal boxes and level crossings.

Maintenance staff from the Transport Salaried Staffs Association are also planning a strike over Network Rail's plans to cut 1,500 jobs, but the company says the action will not affect services. A threatened strike by British Gas engineers has been lifted after "positive discussions" in a row over claims of management bullying, the GMB union said yesterday.