The Rail Dispute: One 'well-qualified' manager runs 32 miles of main route

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RICHARD BROWN stood in front of a long panel full of flashing lights yesterday, single- handedly controlling a 32-mile stretch of the main London to Bristol railway line. The scene illustrated the dilemma facing the RMT union, on the sixteenth strike of the dispute.

Mr Brown is the performance manager for the Bristol area of Railtrack but on strike days he and other managers and supervisors take over the box in Swindon, Wiltshire. He has never been a signalman but underwent signalling training as part of his management course.

Yesterday he worked alongside Jim Ashton, another Railtrack manager, in the 1968 panel box. When strikes are not taking place, there are three signalmen.

Mr Ashton had to leave the box to check out a points failure a mile east of Swindon which had halted the 3.15pm train from Paddington. While he was away Mr Brown was on his own. The harsh truth for the union is that it takes very few people to keep a main railway route open. Mr Brown was busy but not overwhelmed rerouting other trains around the blocked section of track until the line was reopened.

Swindon is not one of the most up-to-date signal boxes. The latest integrated electronic control centres, of which there are nine, are run by computers with signalmen on hand to intervene if there is a problem.

But the box Mr Brown was operating is light years ahead of the traditional lever-operated ones. Red lights record the progress of each train and signal workers open up routes by twiddling an entrance switch and then pressing an exit button for each sector.

There are 165 such panel boxes and Railtrack has concentrated on opening them up, gradually increasing the percentage of the network running on strike days to 57 per cent yesterday.

For Andy Hancock, production manager of Railtrack Great Western, yesterday was a landmark in the dispute, as the company reverted to its normal timetable for the first time on a strike day, running 120 out of the usual 130 trains.

The RMT believes that Railtrack is endangering safety by using management who do not normally run the signalling system and by reducing the numbers in signal boxes.

But Mr Hancock argues that men like Mr Brown and Mr Ashton would be called in if there was ever a major signalling failure and that therefore they are well qualified.

He said: 'I would say that the service running today is as safe as it is on any other day. I would not be running trains if I thought it was unsafe. I do not take short cuts on safety.'