Rail strike union in legal threat over safety

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The Independent Online
UNION leaders yesterday threatened legal action over alleged rail safety breaches as 20 per cent of trains ran during the signal workers' fifth 24-hour stoppage.

Despite the increased service, RAC Roadata said the strike had caused some of the most severe delays on the roads since the start of the dispute. Roads around London, Birmingham and Cardiff were among those worst affected by the action.

The RMT transport union said the company was 'dragooning' managers into signal boxes they were not qualified to operate and offering 'crash courses' in signalling to non-union employees in an attempt to increase the number of services operating during industrial action.

The offer of training could be the first sign that Railtrack, the company which runs the industry's infrastructure, is preparing to dismiss strikers. The white- collar rail union TSSA reported that for the first time the company was suspending managers who are qualified to operate signal boxes, if they refuse to do so.

Richard Rosser, leader of the TSSA, said he received numerous calls from supervisors complaining that they were being 'bullied' into breaking strikes mounted by their subordinates.

The RMT executive meets today to decide whether to step up industrial action from one day a week to two, after next Wednesday's scheduled 24-hour strike. Among the options for escalating the campaign are weekly strikes lasting 48 hours, or two day-long stoppages with one day of relatively normal services in between. The latter would prolong disruption because services are sometimes slow to get back to normal the day after action. Officials have apparently discounted strikes on Monday and Friday.

A spokesman for Railtrack said that the 4,600 signal staff were in danger of losing about pounds 50m in pension benefits - up to pounds 1,700 a head - because of the union's 'refusal' to negotiate on the package tabled by management. On 1 October, British Rail's pension fund will be divided up between the new operating companies on the basis of basic pay rather than employees' total earnings. The Railtrack offer gives signal workers increases of between 13 per cent and 26 per cent on basic pensionable pay, although less than 4 per cent extra on earnings.

The company's spokesman denied there were any breaches of safety regulations and said that all personnel operating signals yesterday were qualified to do so.

He refuted union suggestions that many of the 3,000 services run were 'ghost trains', starting late and finishing early, saying services on InterCity routes to Wales and the West Country were virtually normal.

Management conceded that no RMT members crossed picket lines, but said that signal workers' families were making use of a specially installed 'hotline' to express their wish that the union call a halt to the strikes.

(Photograph omitted)

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