Rail dispute 'could halve network': Anxiety mounts over consequences of continuing disruption. Barrie Clement reports

NEARLY HALF the rail network could be closed permanently if the signal workers' dispute continues over the next three or four months, according to a senior industry source.

An official close to top management at Railtrack and British Rail predicted an 'enormous' number of redundancies, including as many as 3,000 signal workers out of the present complement of 4,600. He said that the routes now being operated on strike days approximated to the lines that would remain viable.

'It is difficult to overstate the concern being expressed at senior levels in the industry,' the highly placed source said. Sir Bob Reid, chairman of BR, has become increasingly anxious about the state of the industry since warning in July that thousands of jobs were at risk because of the dispute.

It is understood that small loss- making branch lines which require considerable numbers of staff to operate, would close first.

Such cutbacks would mean the loss of scores of rural lines in England and much of Scotland and Wales would be left without rail services.

The senior manager told the Independent that the Government might have to 'dust off' the Serpell report, published in 1983, which presented a range of options, including cutting the 11,000 miles of network to 1,600 miles.

Apart from its recommendation that BR workshops should be sold off, the report was effectively shelved. There are now approximately 10,000 miles of track. The last big cutback came in the early 1960s under the Beeching plans.

'It is possible that we would simply be left with the main routes connecting the major cities and that branch lines will be closed,' he said.

The BR chairman warned in July that the dispute was 'hugely destructive' and that the strike could be 'devastating' to the business. He said the business could not expect to keep its passengers and freight customers if the industrial action continued.

As senior managers expressed their anxiety over the future of the industry, it emerged yesterday that British Rail had stopped paying compensation to passengers in areas where trains are running on strike days. Management had been granting cash refunds or extending season tickets to commuters and other travellers caught up in the strikes.

In the 24-hour stoppage tomorrow, British Rail is expected for the first time to run more than half the normal number of trains.

A 'handful' of British Rail staff are being drafted in to help push the number of services over the psychologically important 50 per cent mark.

A member of the Health and Safety Commission yesterday called for an investigation into the training given to the British Rail employees.

Paul Gallagher, who is also general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrcial Union, said he will ask the executive arm of the commission to look into the issue following a string of complaints from railway workers, two of which had given rise for concern among inspectors.

Mr Gallagher said: 'I want to know how, after less than two weeks' training or retraining, it is possible for Railtrack to say that a person is competent to work in a signal box when it takes nine months to train a signal worker.'

A spokesman for Railtrack said there was no question of a deterioration in the levels of safety on strike days. Only fully qualified BR personnel, all of whom were volunteers, would be used.

Railtrack once more hopes to provide a signalling service for more than half of the network by concentrating on the main routes where hi-tech signal boxes cover long stretches of track.

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