Signallers delay trains in protest over shares

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Britain's rail network is being disrupted by Railtrack signallers taking unofficial action in protest at the Government's refusal to compensate company shareholders. Many have lost thousands of pounds each because their stakes in the company are now worthless.

Their combative mood will be exacerbated by the news that Railtrack Group ­ including Railtrack Plc, which is now in administration ­ is expected to report a considerable rise in profits in the six months to September, possibly by as much as 40 per cent. Railtrack Plc was made bankrupt within a week of the end of the financial reporting period.

Sources close to Railtrack revealed that some signallers, the largest single group in the company, are deliberately disrupting trains, especially in the south-east of England, where large numbers of services are being delayed or cancelled.

Staff are giving priority to slow freight and stopping services, holding up faster trains. Signallers are also delaying departures from big London stations by a few minutes, which has a cumulative impact on the system. Railtrack has unofficially admitted that low morale is affecting the timetable but fell short of conceding that there are deliberate acts to slow down the network.

Employees' anger with the Government is matched by dissatisfaction with the RMT union, which allegedly failed to counsel staff on the inadvisability of putting large sums into the company. Since the company went into administration, employees have had less incentive to ensure it escapes fines for poor performance; these are now paid by the Government and do not come out of shareholders' funds.

Passenger groups yesterday reacted with fury to news that the Railtrack Group will register a large rise in profits in the six months to the end of September. The market had expected an increase from last year's £175m to about £200m, but some sources are now estimating that the figure could be between £250m and £300m.

The profits were being accumulated at the same time that Railtrack Plc, in the words of the Rail Regulator, Tom Winsor, was "going round Whitehall with a begging bowl" demanding taxpayers' money.

Shareholders will be angered by the news that Railtrack Plc seems to have been generating more money than it was spending. Shareholders argue that the Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers, forced the business into administration on little more than a technicality.

A spokesman for the Department of Transport said the High Court had decided it was "not only appropriate but essential" that the company be put into administration.

* More than 2,000 members of the RMT rail union at South West Trains are understood to have voted for industrial action in the new year which would stop virtually all the company's services into London Waterloo, on Britain's busiest commuter route.

The union is protesting over management's decision to award higher wage increases to train drivers ­ who are members of the rival union Aslef ­ than to other staff and over alleged victimisation of activists.

The results of two separate ballots are due to be announced tomorrow and according to the law the stoppages could begin seven working days later on New Year's Eve.