Unions warned over strike threat

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John Welsby, the chairman of British Rail, warned of passenger losses and job cuts if the threatened rail strikes go ahead, writes Christian Wolmar.

In an aggressive speech at the launch of the British Railways Board's annual meeting, Mr Welsby criticised the union's failure to negotiate. He said: "On a Wednesday we received a letter from the union, signed J Knapp, which said that if we did not give them 6 per cent more by that Friday, they would consider that we are in dispute. That's they way they are conducting their negotiations."

He said that the unions were not prepared to discuss the odd percentage point, but wanted the board to increase its 3 per cent offer "by a factor of two".

On Monday Aslef, the train drivers' union, announced a series of six one-day strikes and the result of a ballot of workers in the other main rail union, RMT, will be announced on Friday.

Mr Welsby said the Government and the Royal Commission on the Environment wanted greater use of railways. But these hopes would "remain pipedreams until customers can rely on railwaymen and railwaywomen to provide a completely reliable service seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, year after year. Judged against these requirements, the strike record in the last three years has been totally unacceptable."

In the Commons, John Major challenged Labour leader Tony Blair to put the interests of travellers "before militancy" and condemn the strike action.