Safety fear after signals threat

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SIGNAL-BOX managers and supervisors could face dismissal unless they help to break strikes by their staff.

Railtrack, the state-owned company which runs the railway industry's infrastructure, has indicated that disciplinary action may be taken against any senior employee refusing to undermine the industrial action.

One senior manager who has now left the industry has told the Independent on Sunday that the skeleton train services could be operating in unsafe conditions.

The number of trains running during the series of 24-hour strikes has consistently improved as managers have been pressed into service. Last week nearly 1,700 out of 15,000 trains ran. This Wednesday the number will increase again, according to British Rail. A further stoppage is planned for the following Wednesday and leaders of the 4,600 signal staff are threatening two days of action thereafter if there is no settlement of their claim for an 'upfront' payment for past productivity improvements.

In internal documents, Railtrack, which wants fresh productivity measures before awarding an increase, has made clear that on strike days managers will be expected to keep parts of the network going.

However, Peter Rayner, a former senior operating manager with BR, said yesterday that services that ran during the strikes would not meet strict safety standards. He said that some managers in their sixties were being forced to operate panels and boxes, incurring ostracism by people they had known for 30 years or more.

'I am perfectly capable of working a number of signal boxes on BR, but if I were to do so properly I would need practice and refreshing-time. It is one thing to conduct the music but another to play the instrument for eight hours faultlessly with no rehearsal and with hostile lifelong friends outside.'

Hatreds would be created which would take years to heal, Mr Rayner said. The low morale being engendered among managers was also inimical to safety.

Railtrack said that there was no question of running trains in unsafe conditions. However, the company has told the TSSA white-collar union, which represents the supervisors, that those who meet the 'competency criteria' will be expected to work the signal boxes. Any refusal to work will be considered 'on the circumstances of a particular individual's case'.

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