Railtrack sees little scope for more services: No sign of return to work by striking signal staff as 45 per cent of trains run. Barrie Clement reports

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RAILTRACK last night admitted that there was little scope to improve services during strikes unless more signal workers return to work.

Yesterday the company opened 45 per cent of the network compared with 40 per cent last week, but British Rail, which is responsible for services, said there was only a slight improvement in the number of trains operating, which was still about 45 per cent. Management reported that there was no sign of a return to work as the RMT transport union began a 48- hour strike at noon yesterday.

A spokeswoman for BR said full details would not be available until today, but there appeared to be no appreciable change from last week when out of 600 signal box staff working during the industrial action, 342 were RMT members.

She said it was fair to say that Railtrack was nearing the limit of how much of the network it could bring into operation without a substantial return to work.

Some regions ran trains for the first time on a strike day, including the main West Coast line between London and Scotland, but the through service between London and Brighton was cancelled. It is acknowledged by senior industry sources that a plan to encourage BR staff with signalling experience to help break the strikes will have a minimal impact because of the small number who are likely to be involved. Richard Rosser, leader of the rail industry's white collar union, yesterday urged his members not to cross picket lines.

Railtrack has concentrated resources on the main routes into the big cities and in high-tech signal boxes controlling long sections of track.

In the absence of a significant return to work management conceded it would have difficulty in operating branch lines controlled by labour-intensive mechanical signal boxes.

Jimmy Knapp, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said there was no sign of a crack in the industrial action. 'Members have a very firm resolve to get a just settlement,' he said.

Yesterday's industrial action began amid a row over an offer of free overseas trips to managers who are helping to operate services during strike days.

The Railtrack southern zone is offering to take inspectors, managers and supervisors on special trips next month to Paris and Brussels on the new Channel tunnel Eurostar service, which is not yet open to the public. Mr Knapp said that the offer was not available to signal workers, whether they worked on strike days or not, and so was even discriminating against employees who supported the management.

Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, called on signal workers to put pressure on their union to resume negotiations.

He told Tynemouth Conservative Association that a restructuring package was available for negotiation. 'I hope that signalmen will ask their union for how much longer the railway industry must suffer while its passengers and freight users desert, and what will be the long-term effect of this on their jobs?

'Signalmen need to ask the RMT to explain precisely why they refuse to negotiate with Railtrack,' Dr Mawhinney said.

The union said the minister's statements would carry more credibility if he had spoken to both sides in the dispute instead of sticking rigidly to Railtrack's line.