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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Talks urged to avert rail strike
NR Train
Network Rail says the public are against a strike
Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has called for talks to avert a threatened national railways strike.

Members of the RMT Union have voted to strike in a dispute over pay, travel benefits and pensions.

The union is consulting members over when to take the action but says the Bank holiday and D-Day commemorations will not be affected.

There are fears a strike could coincide with one staged by staff at London Underground.

About 7,000 maintenance and signal workers belonging to the RMT union are likely to be striking.

Network Rail said a strike could be "deeply damaging" and would jeopardise recent performance improvements which had seen punctuality at a four-year high.

'Massive inconvenience'

The strikes are set to be the worst in nearly a decade, when a dispute over pay in the run-up to privatisation brought the railways to a virtual standstill.

Calling for talks to avert a strike, Alistair Darling said any action would cause "massive inconvenience and needless disruption to the travelling public".

"At a time when improvements are starting to come through on the railway and passenger confidence is improving, the last thing passengers need is a strike."

Turnout for the ballot was 68% with 2,947 union members voting in favour of a strike and 2,246 against.

Announcing the ballot result at the union's London head office, RMT general secretary Bob Crow said the union would be consulting local and regional representatives over the next four or five days.

He said they would discuss possible dates for industrial action and what form it would take.

'Justice for pay'

"If the company want to reopen negotiations by then we are prepared to talk," he added.

He promised there would be no disruption during the May bank holiday weekend or to coincide with events to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

Mr Crow said the workers' action was "to defend their pension rights, to end two-tier working conditions and for justice on pay".

And he launched a fresh attack on a decision to stop new staff entering the final salary pension scheme.

He said: "People retiring in 20 to 30 years time are going to have no state pension, company pensions won't be worth a light and they will be going to the taxpayer to keep their heads above water."

'Huge bonuses'

Network Rail warned every 24-hour strike would cause losses of between 12m and 15m.

"Every single day the RMT is on strike, the pay available to settle the dispute goes down.

"The 3.5% being offered by Network Rail is worth 21m, so that would be wiped out within two days of a strike," a source said.

It also pointed out that, with less than half of the company's operations and maintenance staff in the RMT, and 38 of these voting for a strike, less than one in five supported the action.

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