Talks aimed at resolving a row over plans to cut 1,500 railway maintenance jobs will resume today in a bid to avert a strike over Easter.
Maintenance, signalling and other workers backed a campaign of industrial action and dates for strikes could be set tomorrow unless there is progress during the talks between the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), the Rail Maritime and Transport union and Network Rail under the chairmanship of the conciliation service Acas.
A row over rail safety flared yesterday after the 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According to the union, the Office of Rail Regulation warned the rail firm that its inspection regime was "seriously out of date" and "did not meet the requirements of the standard for such matters" in these areas.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."
A spokesman for the Office of Rail Regulation said: "The Office of Rail Regulation's frontline inspectors check railway safety arrangements across the GB rail network all year round, through a risk-based programme of targeted inspections.
"The improvement notice was served on Network Rail as part of this proactive programme. It directs the company to address a backlog in detailed inspections of bridges and other structures, to improve the quality and timeliness of its visual inspection regime, and to put in place an effective process for acting on the matters raised in such inspections in Kent, Anglia and Wessex.
"The structures inspections are all undertaken by a contractor, not the directly-employed maintenance workforce. Our inspectors will closely monitor Network Rail to ensure that appropriate action is taken."
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."
Talks over the signallers' dispute were adjourned last night and will resume today before the RMT executive convenes tomorrow to decide its next move.
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."
The RMT said the new safety row gave further evidence that the job cuts had already gone too far and were already compromising public safety before the impact of axing 1,500 further staff was felt.
Mr Crow said: "There is growing evidence across the country that Network Rail's cuts programme is already hitting the critical safety inspection regime hard and this reinforces our case that the company should now pull back from the brink before lethal damage is done.
"There is already a shortage of staff and to be axing maintenance posts and lumping extra work on to signallers under these circumstances is a reckless gamble with rail safety."
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.
An NR spokesman said: "Network Rail is pleased that the unions are continuing to talk with us on maintenance issues.
"Separately, we continue to talk with representatives of our signallers.
"We hope these talks will continue in a positive way so we can avoid unnecessary and damaging industrial action. A strike will not help union members or passengers and will hurt Britain's economy as we edge into recovery."