Strike action on trains faces legal challenge from firms operators

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The Independent Online

RAILWAY COMPANIES are considering legal action to prevent a nationwide strike over safety, which would bring most of the network to a standstil.

RAILWAY COMPANIES are considering legal action to prevent a nationwide strike over safety, which would bring most of the network to a standstil.

More than 6,000 guards and conductors in the RMT union are understood to have voted for industrial action in protest at rules, introduced on Monday, which they believe will water down their security role, especially after crashes. The Association of Train Operating Companies however is preparing to apply for an injunction stopping the strikes, which are set to be called in the wake of a ballot result due tomorrow.

Services run by every train company in the country, except Thameslink and West Anglia Great Northern which are not involved in the argument, would be brought to a halt if the guards walk out.

Industry sources said that while management would seek talks within the next 24 hours, a High Court ruling preventing the stoppages was also an option. Lawyers are preparing to argue that any strikes would constitute unlawful secondary action. They believe the union's dispute is with Railtrack, which controls the industry's rule book, not with train operators whose business would be damaged by the disruption.

Leaders of the RMT revealed yesterday how an off-duty guard who was a passenger on the Great Western express involved in the Paddington disaster helped to avert a further collision. The Virgin employee used a short-circuit device to ensure that the signals behind the train turned to red, stopping another oncoming express.

Bob Crow, assistant general secretary of the RMT, yesterday said that the changes to the rule book would mean that guards would not be familiar with such procedures. "They are trying to change guards from being properly trained railway workers, with important safety responsibilities, into ticket collectors and KitKat sellers," said Mr Crow.

"They want to give primary responsibility to the driver for the outside of the train in the event of an accident, but what happens if the driver is dead - as in the Paddington disaster? This dispute is not about a pay rise or more holidays, it's about employees protecting passengers and themselves."

A Railtrack spokeswoman said the regulations "clarify" the role of the guard and driver. In the wake of a crash the driver would take command of the outside of the train, while the guard would look after passengers. If the driver was incapacitated, the guard would undertake full "train protection" duties, she said.

The RMT also released internal minutes showing that Great Western management harboured major concerns about the costs of the Automatic Train Protection system which the industry is under increasing pressure to introduce.

The record of a meeting on 28 January 1997 - eight months before the Southall rail disaster - says: "GW Trains remain deeply concerned that any insistence on a 'No ATP, No Go' principle would seriously damage performance. Therefore any agreement to progress will need to protect performance integrity." According to the minutes, Richard George, who was then deputy managing director of Great Western, "sought to emphasise that GW Trains will vigorously resist any subsequent significant expenditure".

Meanwhile the train drivers' union Aslef told its members to slow down to 10mph on passenger services and 5mph on freight trains at 22 signals identified as high risk by the Health and Safety Executive.

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