The Rail Dispute: Railtrack chief embarks on charm offensive: Barrie Clement looks at the battle being fought for the hearts and minds of staff and customers

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The Independent Online
BOB HORTON, the abrasive 55-year-old chairman of Railtrack, has embarked on a charm offensive.

Yesterday he offered to give up about pounds 70,000 of his pounds 120,000 salary if the Rail, Maritime and Transport union would accept the company's latest offer. The money, which would be given to charity, is the difference between Mr Horton's pay for three days a week and the pounds 50,000 salary of Jimmy Knapp, leader of RMT.

Given that Mr Horton received pounds 1.5m when he was replaced as the pounds 800,000-a-year chairman of BP, this sacrifice, relayed to Radio 4 listeners, is more apparent than real. Mr Knapp replied simply that the gesture did nothing to improve the wages of signalworkers.

Mr Horton, who was responsible for 'downsizing' BP by 30,000 jobs, has clearly come to the conclusion that he is not as popular with the travelling public, or anyone else, as he might be.

His reputation for arrogance has followed him to Railtrack, the state-owned company that runs the industry's infrastructure. He once famously remarked: 'Because I am blessed by my good brain, I tend to get the answer rather quicker and more often than most people.'

There is little doubt that since he arrived he has had no shortage of questions on which to exercise his mental powers.

A holiday in France the week before the strikes began might, on reflection, have been ill-advised. There was also his initial denial of government intervention in negotiations, which he later rescinded.

There was the grilling at the hands of the House of Commons employment committee when he was unable to say what the average signal worker earned. And, more recently, he has had a less-than-respectful reception during his 'hearts and minds' campaign in signal boxes.

Many of his employees have told him that while they thought a 'restructuring package' was necessary, they did not like the one on offer. According to union sources one signalman told him 'where to put it'. Mr Horton apparently lost his temper and stormed out of the signal box saying he need not have taken on the Railtrack job, he could have been chairman of Lucas (components manufacturer).

Meanwhile, the gravel-voiced Mr Knapp seems to have avoided blame for the dispute. The revelation about his trip to an international union meeting in Geneva did not attract the opprobrium one might have expected. He has since returned early on the advice of his officials. Whether his popularity will survive if the industrial action continues into the autumn is another matter.