Staff who operate increasingly sophisticated signalling equipment have seen more lowly and relatively unskilled grades in the industry receive substantial pay increases in return for productivity deals. Despite approaches from the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers' union to British Rail since 1987, signalling staff have had no such 'regrading package'.
In 1991, for instance, most platform staff were on a basic of pounds 124 a week while the lowest paid signal operator received pounds 137.65. Now however, the platform grade gets pounds 154.30 while his colleague in the signal box earns pounds 146.
The union argues that the increase in productivity delivered by signalling staff has been considerable. Twenty-four years ago there were 170 signal boxes on the King's Cross to Berwick run, in 1994 there are five. Fourteen years ago there were 8,900 signal personnel, now there are 4,600, controlling the same amount of traffic, according to the union. 'We appreciate that was due largely to the introduction of new equipment. But our people are under far more pressure than they were.'
One 40-year-old signalman who works on the southern fringes of London, described the conflict as a 'festering sore'. The man, who must remain anonymous because he can be dismissed for speaking to the press, said: 'If anything, management should congratulate the union for keeping the lid on the dispute for so long.' When they were balloted, signal operators voted four to one for a series of 24-hour strikes in an 80 per cent turnout.
He pointed out that trainee signal box staff underwent a two- or three-day 'initiation' course on basic railway safety, followed by eight to ten weeks in the classroom. They were then attached to a small signal box for two to three months, after which they would operate on their own at a place where traffic was limited. Progression to the busiest boxes could take anything between two and ten years.
The argument about differentials came to a head at the beginning of the year and the union demanded an 11 per cent increase from British Rail in order to restore the position of signal staff. The same claim was put before Railtrack when it assumed ownership of the industry's infrastructure on 1 April.
After three days of talks, last Wednesday, management indicated unofficially that it was prepared to offer a 5.7 per cent increase in an attempt to redress the balance. Signal staff would also recieve the 2.5 per cent increase which employees in the industry had received as part of the normal pay negotiations. The proposal would be put in writing, the union was told.
Instead, it was withdrawn at a seven-minute session with the union on Monday following a board meeting at Railtrack. Union negotiators were told it had taken until Monday to get the directors together because they were all busy people with other jobs and commitments.
Railtrack says the union has been offered negotiations on a productivity deal with a deadline of September and maintains that no 'offer' was put. A spokesman conceded that 'an awful lot of figures' were mentioned by management, but none constituted an offer.
Meanwhile, the signalman expressed his hope that people would be patient with them today. 'I hope the sun shines and they enjoy their day off.'
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