Railtrack gaining image as a branch line of government: Barrie Clement assesses allegations that the management of Railtrack has been guilty of both a cock-up and a conspiracy

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The Independent Online
THE new company created to control the rail infrastructure in preparation for privatisation, stands accused of naivety and incompetence in its conflict with signal workers. There is also considerable evidence that management is unable to make a decision of any consequence without informing ministers.

Perhaps the most damaging for Railtrack in the long term is its emerging image as a client state of the Government. It was split from British Rail at a cost of some pounds 60m so that it could behave as a free-standing entrepreneurial business, making its own decisions ahead of its sale to the private sector.

That has been exposed as fiction by the intervention of John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, who read the riot act over an intention to offer signal box staff 5.7 per cent for productivity improvements already achieved.

Under pressure from a BBC radio interviewer, Mr MacGregor admitted that he had reminded directors of their responsibility to abide by the public sector freeze on pay bills. This admission followed denials of the Government's involvement by both Railtrack and the Department of Transport.

The 5.7 per cent proposal is now routinely referred to by Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT union, as the 'Paul Daniels offer' because it disappeared as if by magic.

While management negotiators and the Government were involved in the toing and froing, Bob Horton, the pounds 120,000-a-year chairman of Railtrack, was in France, and the personnel director, David Armstrong, the man with immediate responsibility for industrial relations, was on holiday in the West Indies.

Then came the revelation in the Independent on Sunday that a senior Prime Ministerial aide and a representative of the Department of Transport sat in on management deliberations last Friday.

Union leaders wanted to begin formal talks that day, but argued that the Government's insistence on being briefed had caused the hiatus.

On Saturday evening, management insisted on adjourning the talks until tonight, rather than continuing discussions yesterday. Vernon Hince, the union's chief negotiator, believes the delay may be in order that Railtrack can cost its own proposals (incompetence) or to give it an opportunity to receive more instructions from the Government (conspiracy). It might well be a combination of both.

A spokesman for Railtrack contended that the delay was to allow the company's board to meet today to assess the situation. In most industrial disputes however, a few well-chosen phone calls to key directors normally suffice.

Railtrack is in danger of engendering public sympathy for the signal workers who now look set to walk out for a second time on Wednesday.

It should be remembered that the union was originally seeking an 11 per cent increase for past productivity improvements and for the restoration of wage differentials, at a time when most workers have to make do with 3 per cent at the most.