Union chief: rail strikes 'out of control'

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The Independent Online

The leader of Britain's biggest rail union has warned for the first time that the present industrial unrest could spread throughout the country.

Vernon Hince, acting general secretary of the RMT, said the strikes were now "spiralling out of control"and told The Independent that the present fragmented nature of the system was a "recipe for industrial strife". He said there should be an immediate return to national pay bargaining, adding: "The present problems are likely to spread to other train operators unless something radical is done as a matter of urgency."

Mr Hince said there was "little doubt" the conflict over pay would affect virtually every train operating company.

"It has been caused by the fragmentation of the industry under privatisation. We believe the industry should be run by one organisation under public control. As an interim measure – and as a way out of an industrial relations problem, which is spiralling out of control – we believe there should be an immediate return to national pay bargaining."

The threat of more misery for passengers came as Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, pointed out there was an argument whether "in retrospect" the Government should have stuck to tight Tory spending limits in its first two years.

He also suggested it would take 10 years to turn around the railways. Mr Cook's remarks followed claims by Peter Hain, the Europe Minister, that Britain had the worst railways in Europe and Government should have invested money earlier.

Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, was also forced to admit yesterday that "certain aspects" of the railways had got worse under Labour. Figures released yesterday showed train cancellations soared by 45 per cent last year, with 84,935 services abandoned in the first nine months of 2001.

The RMT is already involved in disputes at South West Trains, Connex South Eastern and Arriva Northern but there are signs of unrest on the same issue – the gap between drivers and pay for other staff – at the London commuter networks run by Silverlink and C2C.

London Underground drivers became the latest group involved in a pay row yesterday after leaders accused the company of "reneging" on a deal that averted strikes last autumn. Mick Rix, the general secretary of the drivers' union Aslef, called for a return to national negotiations. Talks were held between ScotRail and Aslef yesterday to try to halt a work-to-rule by drivers in Scotland.

Commuters on South West Trains have suffered two 48-hour strikes and the RMT plans another two day walkout on 24 and 25 January. Arriva Northern is also to be hit by stoppages on 24 and 25 January, as well as 5 and 6 February and unrest at Connex South Eastern is also likely.

Mr Cook told the Commons Mr Hain had drawn attention to what had been "a matter for discussion within our party" about the decision to stick to the investment plans of the Tories.

"I am perfectly willing to listen to my colleagues and my friends in Government asking whether in retrospect we should necessarily have shown such patience," he said.

"I am not willing to listen to lectures from the party opposite us ... which left us with an inheritance for the railway industry that will take a decade to get right," he added.