Union aims to cause 'grave problems' for passengers

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The Independent Online

Three million passengers on London Underground could be hit by go-slows and strikes before Christmas after union leaders threatened to take action over an alleged decline in safety standards.

The RMT rail union announced yesterday it was going to ballot its 3,000 members after a series of Tube derailments including two in the past eight days, on 17 October and 19 October.

Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT, predicted his members would vote for action, which would cause "grave problems''. He said that it could begin on 24 November.

Under the strategy, drivers would operate trains at half the normal speed and engineers and station staff would be called on to work to rule. If the tactics did not succeed, Mr Crow said, London Underground employees would be called out on a series of 24-hour strikes.

He said that it was "crazy'' that engineering companies such as Jarvis, Balfour Beatty and Carillion were being stripped of their contracts by Network Rail on the national system but were still allowed to maintain the London Underground infrastructures.

The union is calling for a stricter safety regime including the resumption of daily inspections of the track.

Mr Crow said: "Our plans will clearly cause disruption to members of the travelling public, which we deeply regret, especially in the run-up to Christmas, but the messages we have received in recent days from members of the public indicate that the overwhelming majority of people share our concerns.''

He said that the union had written to Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, and the Health and Safety Executive urging them to suspend private-sector contracts in the interest of safety.

"It is untenable that the same companies now being kicked out of maintenance contracts on the national railway network should be allowed to continue to profit from declining safety standards on the Tube,'' Mr Crow said.

Union members would be asked to work strictly within safety rules as part of the industrial action. Because of the employers' failure to guarantee a safe level of inspection drivers would be advised to operate at "cautionary speeds''.

He said station staff would also be advised to close stations that became overcrowded. He said the law required that if three adjacent stations had to be closed, the entire line would have to be shut.

He said the union reserved the right to announce 24-hour strikes if measures to improve safety standards were not taken.

The recent derailments increased safety fears about the Tube. In the first, last Friday, a train came off the tracks near Hammersmith station in the west of the capital. In the second, seven people were injured when the fourth carriage of a four-car train hit a wall near Camden station in north London on Sunday morning.

The union said there had been five derailments in the past 13 months, which had partly resulted from the partial privatisation of London Underground. The present structure means that while London Underground, which is owned by the state, operates the trains, maintenance of the infrastructure has been leased for 30 years to two private-sector consortiums. The consortiums include engineering companies currently working on the national rail network.