Page last updated at 11:41 GMT, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 12:41 UK

Rail strike challenge to go before High Court

Train tracks
Network Rail said there were "scores of discrepancies" in the ballot

A legal bid by Network Rail to halt next week's planned strikes by railway signallers and maintenance staff is to be heard at the High Court on Thursday.

Network Rail says it has found "scores of discrepancies and inaccuracies" in the signallers' ballot.

The RMT and the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA) are planning a four-day walkout from 6 April in a row over pay and work changes.

The RMT said it would be "robustly defending" its position in court.

It was angered to be served with notice of the legal challenge following two days of talks aimed at reaching a settlement of the dispute.

'Assault on union'

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said on Tuesday: "I can confirm that RMT is putting together an experienced legal team, including some of the most high-profile employment law experts in the country.

"We will be mounting the most robust defence possible in the High Court against this attack by Network Rail on our internal democracy.

"This is a scandalous attempt by Network Rail to use the full weight of the anti-union laws to deny our members their basic human right to withdraw their labour and we will fight this assault on our union to the hilt."

An RMT spokesman earlier said the ballot of its members had been "perfectly above-board".

Talks continue and our aim is a negotiated settlement, but we must explore all avenues at our disposal and that includes legal ones
Network Rail

Robin Gisby, Network Rail's director of operations and customer services, said: "We want to find a negotiated settlement to this dispute and talks continue, but we have a responsibility to the entire country to head off this strike and let people enjoy their Easter break."

The company said the inaccuracies included 11 signal boxes balloted by the RMT that do not exist, and 67 locations where the numbers of union members balloted exceeded the total number of employees working there.

It says there were also 26 workplaces which were completely missed out, giving RMT members at these locations no opportunity to vote and 12 locations where there were no operations staff at all, so workers were ineligible to vote.

The dispute centres on Network Rail plans to cut 1,500 jobs and increase evening and weekend maintenance work.

If the walkout goes ahead, it would be the first national rail strike since 1994.

TSSA supervisors and RMT maintenance workers are set to walk out from 6 to 9 April inclusive, while RMT signal staff will strike from 0600-1000 and 1800-2200 on those days.

More talks

The conciliation service Acas, which has been brokering talks between Network Rail and the unions, said discussions had resumed.

It is estimated that if the strike goes ahead, only one in five trains on average will be able to run and that the worst-hit routes could be the commuter lines into London Victoria, Waterloo, Liverpool Street and London Bridge, where only one in 10 services could be in operation.

Network Rail has said it hopes to achieve the vast majority of the 1,500 job losses through voluntary redundancy.

Bob Crow
Network Rail's legal move has angered the RMT's Bob Crow

Unions say the plans would adversely affect railway safety - a claim disputed by Network Rail.

The start of the strike coincides with the day on which Prime Minister Gordon Brown is widely expected to announce the date of the general election.

Mr Brown and Transport Secretary Lord Adonis have both urged the two sides to try to resolve the row.

But Theresa Villiers, shadow transport secretary, said that the prime minister's "lack of leadership in the face of union militancy" was "dragging us back to the 1970s and the dying days of the last Labour government".

The High Court hearing, to be held on Thursday, comes shortly after the RMT announced that it would also ballot its 10,000 London Underground members on strike action over plans to cut 800 jobs.

Mr Crow said the staffing cuts would be a "scandalous dereliction of duty" which would turn Tube stations into a "muggers' paradise".

But London Underground director Richard Parry said the changes were "vital to ensure we can deliver a safer, more frequent Tube service in future".

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