Manager blamed for rail crossing near-miss

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A MANAGER operating a signal box on a strike day was blamed for almost causing a crash between a London-to-Birmingham train and a tractor earlier this month, an inquiry has found.

The inquiry's report came as both sides in the rail dispute began negotiations last night and it was revealed that the signal workers' action had cost the industry more than pounds 300m. The talks, which are expected to last into next week, were adjourned after six hours and are due to resume today.

The incident was seized upon by the unions which have repeatedly warned that safety has been compromised on strike days by staff unused to running signal boxes. Lawrence Cramer, divisional organiser of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: 'The train was yards away from disaster. It may have come from the signal operator not being au fait with the signal and the area.' The manager, who has not been named, was running a signal box controlling a level crossing at Clattercote, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, on 8 September when he was contacted by a farmer seeking to drive over the unmanned crossing with a tractor and trailer.

The farmer, Daniel Louch, said he was given clearance to use the crossing at about 10.15am after telling the manager he needed two minutes to cross. However, as he began to cross the line, he saw a train coming. He said: 'I looked back. I was about half way across and it was nearly on top of me. I panicked and put the tractor into reverse. The tractor shot back and the train missed me.'

Railtrack said last night that the manager was well-qualified for the task, as he had 14 years' experience of working signal boxes and had worked that particular box several times in the past four years. A spokesman said: 'It was human error and not any fault in procedures.'

Robert Horton, chairman of Railtrack, told the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee that the first formal negotiations for two months which began at the conciliation service Acas at 2pm yesterday were bound to last 'several days'.

In a separate submission to the industry's consumer watchdog yesterday, British Rail said the conflict had caused the loss of pounds 200m in revenue and Railtrack put its deficit at pounds 100m or more.

Mr Horton urged the executive of the RMT to show goodwill by calling off tomorrow's 24-hour stoppage, but it was thought likely that it will go ahead.

Mr Horton said he hoped that the discussions would lead to a 'rapid route' to a settlement and that agreement could be struck before 30 September. On that date the industry's pension fund will be divided between operating companies on the basis of employees' earnings.

The union has ordered a 48- hour strike next Thursday and Friday, with 24 hours of action on London Underground on the second day. Talks on the Tube dispute over a 2.5 per cent pay offer are scheduled for tomorrow.

The talks at Acas began after a national delegate meeting of signal workers at the weekend said the union should be prepared to negotiate on its claim and management's offer 'in parallel'.

After the consultative committee's meeting yesterday, Mr Horton said the company would not be prepared to talk about past productivity achievements, but would discuss 'present and future' improvements in efficiency.