Rail workers are to take four days of strike action immediately after Easter in a bitter row over jobs and working practices, threatening the worst disruption for 16 years, it was announced tonight.
Thousands of members of the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) employed by Network Rail will take action from Tuesday April 6, sparing Easter holiday travellers.
The RMT said its 5,000 members working as signallers will strike between 6am and 10am and between 6pm and 10pm on April 6,7,8 and 9.
The union's 12,000 NR maintenance workers, and TSSA's 800 members working as supervisors, will stage an all-out strike from 6am on April 6 to 11.59pm on April 9.
Rail workers will also ban overtime and rest-day working for the duration of the strike.
The strikes were announced despite talks this week at the conciliation service Acas to try to resolve the dispute over NR's plans to cut 1,500 maintenance jobs and change working practices to allow more work to be done in the evenings and weekends.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: "RMT negotiators have worked flat-out to try and reach an agreement that protects rail safety, job security and working agreements in the disputes involving signalling and maintenance staff on Britain's railways.
"Despite long hours of talks, we have received nothing concrete from Network Rail that addresses the key issues.
"It remains the case that Network Rail, in a drive to slash 21% from their budget, want to axe 1,500 maintenance posts, lump maintenance functions on to over-worked signallers, rip up agreements and impose changes that will quite clearly undermine safety across our railways and make another Hatfield, Potters Bar or Grayrigg disaster an inevitability."
TSSA general secretary Gerry Doherty said: "This is all about safety, the safety of the travelling public and the safety and security of our members at Network Rail.
"The Office of Rail Regulation agrees with us that these changes pose a threat to safety. It is time that Iain Coucher (NR chief executive) started listening to his staff and the rail regulator."
Union officials said the rail network will "effectively be closed down" by the industrial action.
Mr Crow and Mr Doherty announced the strikes at a joint press conference in London, stressing they were still available for talks to try to head off the action.
Mr Crow said NR would have to prove to his members that the job cuts and changes to working practices would not dilute safety, as well as give assurances there would be no compulsory redundancies.
"We don't want to spoil people's Easter holidays, or travel arrangements after Easter, but we have to sort out our members' real concerns.
"This is not about extra money, or wanting better pay and conditions. This is about the safety of the railways.
"We don't believe that what Network Rail is doing by extracting jobs will adequately support a safe railway."
Mr Crow said he was on the scene of the Grayrigg incident a few hours after it happened and he never again wanted to see workers and passengers involved in an accident.
"The company now has a golden opportunity to resolve this dispute, but our members have been pushed enough.
"They can hire all the consultants they want, but the real experts are our members, who deliver the work every single day of the week."
Mr Crow said he would rather take industrial action now if it avoided an accident on the railways.
Mr Doherty stressed his union was not militant, but said his members working as supervisors on the railways were concerned about the safety implications of the job cuts.
He called on Transport Secretary Lord Adonis to intervene in the dispute, adding: "It is solvable."
Robin Gisby, Network Rail's director of operations and customer services, said: "Passengers want more trains - starting earlier and running later - with fewer buses and more trains at weekends.
"To achieve this, Network Rail needs to change the way the railway works. We want proper discussions with the unions' leadership about implementing changes. Negotiations, not strikes, are the way forward.
"This proposed strike is not about safety. Britain's railway is safer than ever. The issue of safety is a smokescreen from a union leadership stuck in the steam age.
"Our contingency plans are well advanced and aim to keep as many trains running as possible. But a national rail strike will have a severe impact on services and on Britain."
Lord Adonis said: "A strike is in no one's interests and could cause serious disruption to passengers. Both sides should seek to resolve this dispute by negotiation and not confrontation and I am urging them to do so."
Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Norman Baker said: "This strike is putting politics before the passenger and jeopardises future investment in the railways -the RMT are simply pulling the rug out from underneath its own members and passengers.
"Safety is obviously of prime importance. That is why I wrote to the rail regulator, who told me that it was satisfied that NR's plans will not jeopardise safety, which means that the RMT's claims on safety are simply scaremongering.
"NR does need to be more efficient but this doesn't have to come at the cost of jobs."
Mr Gisby warned he was not prepared to see the country "held to ransom" by strikes and has been drawing up contingency plans for weeks to deal with any action.
NR said it hoped to achieve the "vast majority" of the 1,500 job losses through voluntary redundancy, adding that 1,100 staff had already volunteered to leave.
Compulsory redundancies could not be ruled out, although there will be none this year and the situation will be assessed at Christmas, said Mr Gisby.
NR said it was determined to press ahead with changes to working practices, some of which dated back to the 1950s.
There were 73 separate terms and conditions affecting maintenance staff and some were now out of date, officials said.
NR is closing four or five signal boxes a year out of a current total of 1,800 because of increased automation and other changes.
The strike will be the first national stoppage on the railways since a signal workers' dispute in 1994 which crippled services for days.
A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said: "If this strike goes ahead, it would be hugely frustrating for passengers and bad for British business.
"It's deplorable for the unions to threaten the first national rail strike in 16 years and shows scant regard for the needs of passengers and an economy which is only just emerging from recession.
"But we are hopeful that a resolution can be found that will stop the industrial action and put the passenger first. In the event of a strike, train companies would work closely with Network Rail to run as many train services as possible and keep disruption to a minimum."Reuse content