Safety row ahead of talks on rail strike

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The Independent Online

A row over rail safety flared today ahead of crucial talks aimed at averting a strike over Easter.

The Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) said it had been leaked documents showing that Network Rail was in breach of health and safety legislation over bridge inspections in Kent, Anglia and Wessex.

According to the union, the Office of Rail Regulation warned the rail firm that its inspection regime was "seriously out of date" and "did not meet the requirements of the standard for such matters" in these areas.

They served an improvement notice on the company giving it until March 31 to ensure that the "current backlog of inspections" is carried out and "that an effective monitoring regime is put in place for visual inspections to ensure that they are carried out to the required standard and within the appropriate timescale", said the TSSA.

A Network Rail spokesman said: "We would never compromise on safety. Such accusations are simply wrong. It's disappointing to see one of the unions we hope to have meaningful discussions with today grandstanding in this way."

The row flared ahead of crucial talks between the TSSA, the Rail Maritime and Transport union and NR under the chairmanship of the conciliation service Acas.

It also emerged that dates for strikes could be set on Thursday unless there is progress during the talks, which are aimed at resolving a row over NR's plans to cut 1,500 maintenance jobs.

TSSA leader Gerry Doherty said: "These documents support what we have been saying all through this dispute. Network Rail is lowering safety standards on the network by cutting jobs and workloads in a money saving exercise.

Maintenance, signalling and other workers have backed a campaign of industrial action.

Robin Gisby, NR's director of operations and customer services, said: "We strongly believe that a negotiated settlement between our trades unions about the ongoing maintenance dispute over modernisation and signallers over rosters is possible.

"We look forward to sitting down with them today to start talks that can help end the threat of unnecessary strikes that would cause misery to millions of passengers and damage a recovering British economy."

NR said the signallers' main issue was around rosters as the company pressed to move around 50 staff to a new four day a week roster.

Strikes by signal workers would cripple the rail network immediately, while NR believes it would take several days of action by maintenance workers to have an impact on train services.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: "RMT remains committed to reaching a negotiated settlement that protects safety-critical jobs and safe staffing levels across the rail network and which puts the safety and security of the travelling public above the drive to hit financial cuts targets."