Leading Article: Rail watchdogs without bite

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The Independent Online
SINCE the first signallers' strike on 15 June, passengers have been surprisingly vocal in blaming Railtrack and the Government for badly managing the dispute. A fifth one-day stoppage takes place today. Yet the public seems stubbornly convinced that signal workers have received a raw deal from incompetent employers acting as puppets of the Department of Transport.

It is a shame that such public opinion has not been voiced at the negotiating table. Passengers are represented by the Rail Users' Committee, a state-funded body whose chairman, Major-General Lennox Napier, is a government appointee.

The committee has been silent on the rights and wrongs of the dispute. Likewise, the National Consumer Council - funded by the Department of Trade and Industry - does not consider such matters as part of its brief.

Yet such inaction leaves consumers powerless to influence a dispute that is damaging them, and in which Railtrack seems not to have acted in the best interests of passengers. It is time for consumer organisations to abandon their passivity. They should become embroiled in the nitty-gritty of such conflicts and express subtle, informed views rather than platitudes. Consumer support for the employer's line should not be assumed, as it generally has been until now.

Close examination of the byzantine complexities of the signallers' strike would justify a general feeling that a just settlement is possible. This would avoid humiliation on either side, or high knock-on public sector pay increases. The RMT, representing the signal staff, seems ready to accept a compromise, just as it was poised last month to abandon strike action on the basis of Railtrack's hastily withdrawn offer. The block to a settlement seems once again to be John MacGregor, the Transport Secretary.

Railtrack wants to restructure wages by reducing overtime, abolishing out-dated allowances and acknowledging productivity gains. The RMT agrees to the principle. Higher basic wages would make for better pensions and holiday wages.

The dispute is about the sums involved. Under Railtrack's present offer, the lowest-grade signaller would gain pounds 186 a year on current average earnings of pounds 13,000. The top-grade average salary would increase from pounds 21,971 to pounds 22,960. These productivity increases are on top of 2.5 per cent awarded throughout the industry.

The union wants more. It claims that, unlike other rail staff, signallers have not been rewarded for productivity gains over the past seven years.

It is not beyond either side to settle the matter. The sums involved are not huge. If Railtrack were a little more generous in sharing the fruits of future productivity gains, the RMT would probably cease haggling about the past. Railtrack could sell the deal as self-financing. All that is missing is a nod from Mr MacGregor. A few vocal passenger representatives might have given him a push.

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