Rail services throughout Britain are likely to be severely disrupted this summer after guards voted overwhelmingly for strikes in a dispute over their safety role in crashes.
At a time when the network is still recovering from the chaos after the Hatfield disaster, union leaders yesterday announced two 24-hour stoppages, which will bring most of the system to a halt on 25 June and 4 July with more to come if there is no agreement.
As the network was threatened with the first national industrial action for seven years, the rail regulator, Tom Winsor, urged Railtrack to "get a grip". In a speech last night, Mr Winsor said: "Railtrack should put away the begging bowl and stop spending valuable management time hawking themselves unwanted round Whitehall, and knuckle down to getting train services back to a sustainable level of reliability and quality of service."
His acerbic comments come after the infrastructure company warned that it would need billions of pounds more of taxpayers' money.
Only five of the country's train companies will be unaffected by the stoppages: Great Eastern and the Isle of Wight's Island Line, where staff voted against industrial action, and Thameslink, West Anglia Great Northern and Gatwick Express, where there are no guards on trains.
Peace talks aimed at averting the action will start today.
Representatives of the guards argued that their role was being downgraded and that as a consequence the new rules were unsafe. Under the new system they are responsible for passengers and the inside of the train, while under the old rule book they had responsibility for the whole train. Bob Crow, assistant general secretary of the RMT rail union, said his members had been working under the new rules for 18 months, and believed that they were unsafe. "Once the travelling public understands that this is about their safety, then one or two days of inconvenience will pale into insignificance." He said that RMT members had voted four-to-one on average for the strike action, and more than 10-to-one in some places.
George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: "What makes the RMT think it's got a monopoly on safety? They are our passengers and staff. We are concerned about safety as well." He said there was "no good reason" for the stoppages, and that the union had not responded to an offer to have its counter-proposals assessed by safety experts.
A spokeswoman for Railway Safety, the Railtrack subsidiary with responsibility for the rule book, said the union had failed to show that its plans would change the system for the better. Industry sources maintain that one of the main reasons for the industrial action is the union's concern that it will lose members because of the introduction of driver-only trains.
Anthony Smith, national director of the Rail Passengers Council, said: "The biggest impact will be, as usual, on passengers. Just when the railway was starting to get back together after Hatfield with some great bargain offers around, this was not the news the public wanted to hear."
The last nationwide rail strikes were in 1994, when a signal workers' dispute crippled the network for months on end.Reuse content