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Rail strike protagonists to meet: After request from MP, the leaders of Railtrack and the RMT are to hold face-to-face talks

ON THE eve of the fourth signal workers' strike, the two most senior men from management and the union reluctantly agreed yesterday to meet for the first time since the dispute started.

Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, and Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT transport union, are expected to meet within days in an attempt to pave the way for a settlement.

Initially Mr Horton told the Commons select committee on employment yesterday that he was content to leave the talks to his negotiating team but, under pressure from Greville Janner, he agreed to meet Mr Knapp.

Subsequently, the RMT general secretary was asked by Mr Janner, committee chairman, if he would be prepared to 'have a chat' with the Railtrack chairman. 'It would be foolish to say no,' Mr Knapp said.

Earlier, Mr Horton hinted that Railtrack, the state- owned company which runs the industry's infrastructure, would resort to dismissals if industrial action continued. He told MPs that the dispute had not got to that stage yet, but refused to be drawn on when that time might come.

The union has called two more stoppages on successive Wednesdays after today's 24- hour action and has threatened two-day strikes every week after 24 July.

Mr Horton was grilled by Mr Janner about the degree of Government involvement in the dispute. The Railtrack chairman said he had met John McGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, 'three or four times' since the dispute started, and was due to meet him again tomorrow. There were also frequent phone calls.

Such contact was to be expected given that the Government was Railtrack's '100 per cent shareholder'. Mr Horton said: 'The Transport Secretary has made it abundantly clear that the Government's approach means that any increase in pay has to be paid out of productivity.' At the beginning of the dispute the Railtrack chairman consistently denied close ministerial involvement.

Mr Knapp told the committee that the union had not 'manufactured' the dispute and that there was a strong demand for action from RMT members. They were seeking to restore differentials with less skilled railway employees and were seeking payments for productivity improvements already achieved.

He said that 'probably the biggest reason' for the industrial action was the removal of an informal 5.7 per cent offer after the Government had intervened in the dispute.

Labour released private opinion poll figures yesterday showing that more people blame the Government for the strikes than blame either Railtrack or the union, writes Nicholas Timmins.

The party said that among 945 people asked by NOP at the weekend who they held responsible for the strikes, 40 per cent said the Government, against 18 per cent each who said the union or Railtrack were most to blame.

(Photograph omitted)