Management and unions enter talks today aimed at averting strikes on London Underground as British Rail drivers agreed to be "flexible" over their demand for an inflation-plus pay rise.
However, the prospects of an imminent settlement of the disputes still looked remote as train drivers brought the network to a virtual standstill yesterday and union leaders at London Underground insisted that they needed a substantial increase in their 2.75 per cent offer.
More than 2,000 Tube drivers are today expected to join their colleagues on London Underground in voting for strikes, beginning with a 24-hour walkout on Thursday next week to coincide with the third day-long strike by BR drivers. Management sources at London Underground said that while their negotiators were anxious to "clarify" their position, there was unlikely to be a change in the 2.75 per cent offer.
Lew Adams, general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers' union, said that British Rail now had a nine-day "window of opportunity" before the next stoppage. "We are prepared to be flexible in negotiations if they will come to us with a new set of proposals which amount to an improved offer."
He said that any new proposals would be put to the membership for acceptance or rejection. Just before the first strike BR offered up to pounds 200 in bonuses on top of the 3 per cent dependent on financial performance of the train operators. That has since been withdrawn.
Last night, a BR spokesman said Mr Adams had called for talks last Friday, but had insisted on an increase in the basic offer and negotiations were therefore seen to be impossible.
The spokesman added: "We have been the ones who have been flexible. We started off with a 2.5 per cent offer, we put it up to 3 per cent and then offered bonuses of up to pounds 200. Aslef has moved nowhere. If the union wants to talk they are more than welcome, but 3 per cent is all we can offer."
If management at London Underground increases its package to match the 3 per cent proposal by British Rail, union leaders would probably be forced to put it to a ballot. Otherwise London Underground could seek an injunction to stop the industrial action.That would delay the first strike on the Tube network for three or four weeks. A spokesman for the Underground said: "We felt in the public interest that we should have a further meeting in order to clarify our position."
Yesterday British Rail managed to increase the number of services available during the strike by drivers. While last Friday 220 trains ran, yesterday there were 330. A spokesman for management confirmed, however, that not one Aslef driver crossed picket lines and none were expected to. All the trains operated yesterday were crewed by members of the RMT transport union, which voted against strike action.
Paul Watkinson, personnel director at BR, called on the union to reballot its members. He said he was "trying hard" to help Aslef find a way forward.