Unions fight Kinnock plan

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UNIONS ARE threatening to cripple Europe's train network today in a one-day strike against plans by Neil Kinnock, the EU Transport Commissioner, to open the Continent's railways to private operators.

The one-day stoppage will hit France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Luxembourg, and will disrupt Eurostar services to London.

The dispute has cast the former Labour Party leader in the unlikely role of union hate figure, accused of trying to "privatise" Europe's railways.

Described by one union leader as an overtly "political strike", the effects are likely to be felt mostly in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. SNCF, the French national operator, said that only 280 of 680 scheduled trains would run today.

The action marks an escalation in the campaign against one of the most contentious aspects of European transport policy.

Mr Kinnock said 500,000 jobs have been lost in the European rail industry in the past 15 years and he insists his plans are essential to its survival. "Our proposals do not pose a threat to jobs. The great and continuing menace to jobs comes from the way in which rail is losing shares of the transport market," he said.

Mr Kinnock's plans, which will be discussed at a transport council meeting on 30 November, would force countries to set up independent rail regulators who would decide the price which private companies would be charged to run freight or passenger trains along track.

He argues that many national rail operators, such as SNCF, control the cost of access to networks, deterring the entry of outside operators and reducing the market.

The initiative dates from a 1996 commission document which argued for market forces "to revitalise rail transport". The proposals envisage the opening of about 5 per cent of services to competition, building to 25 per cent over 10 years.