Signal dispute set to close railways again

BRITISH RAIL was preparing to shut down most of the rail network from midnight tonight as management and signal workers' leaders were locked in talks early today.

It is hoped that more trains will be run tomorrow compared with the fourth day-long strike last week when 12 per cent of the 15,000 trains operated. Union leaders expressed their pessimism about the chances of averting the stoppage, saying that Railtrack, the state-owned company that runs the industry's infrastructure, was still not prepared to address its claim for an 'up-front' payment.

On his way into fresh talks at the conciliation service Acas, aimed at attempting to resolve the month-old dispute, Vernon Hince, chief negotiator for the RMT transport union, said he was not hopeful of achieving a peace formula. Hinting at informal discussions over the weekend, however, David Armstrong, personnel director of the company, said it had made some progress. He said: 'There is always hope when people are talking.' The union has scheduled another strike next Wednesday and threatened two- day action each week thereafter.

Today John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, faces a grilling by the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment. MPs are anxious to question the minister on the Government's influence on negotiations. Last week Bob Horton, chairman of Railtrack, was forced to concede that he would meet Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT, but little seemed to come of the meeting. Leaders of the 4,600 signal workers are seeking compensation for productivity improvements.