Region braced for rail strike threat

By Rebecca SheppardRAIL passengers could be facing a summer of disruption as signal staff vote on taking strike action over in their ongoing pay row.

By Rebecca Sheppard

RAIL passengers could be facing a summer of disruption as signal staff vote on taking strike action over in their ongoing pay row.

The threat to train services in East Anglia comes as the region is already braced for months of disruption when the Ipswich railway tunnel is closed in July for engineering work.

Members of the trade union RMT have started voting on whether to take industrial action after it failed to reach an agreement with Network Rail on the issues of pay, pensions and travel benefits.

The results of the ballot are due on May 17 and if the deadlock is not broken by then, staff will take strike action - raising the prospect of the first national rail stoppage for a decade.

Peter Meades, a spokesman for rail operator One Anglia, said: "At the moment we have got very much a watching brief and we hope that Network Rail will resolve the issue with the RMT.

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"The staff that they are balloting are signalling staff. If the signal staff do not go to work, we cannot signal the trains.

"We would be unable to run a service, but we will just have to see what happens should a dispute occur. There was a signal strike in 1994 and we were able to run a limited service as some staff went into work."

He added: "The tunnel closure will obviously go ahead as it's an engineering project and we have minimised disruption. That's going to happen and we have got to deal with that. As far as this issue's concerned there's still time and we hope there will be a settlement."

John Armitt, chief executive of Network Rail, has written to staff to "explain the facts from the company's perspective" in an effort to avoid industrial action.

His letter said: "A strike is the last thing the railway needs right now. When the Government is reviewing the industry and when our performance is actually improving significantly, the public will not understand why a strike now makes sense. In short, a strike will damage all of us and everything we have worked hard for together."

The RMT said its members were being balloted over the closure of the company's final salary pension scheme to new members, the refusal to discuss travel facilities and a low pay offer of 3%.

The Ipswich railway tunnel will close on July 11 while eight weeks of engineering work is carried out to lower the track so taller containers can travel through on their way to Felixstowe port.

The closure, which will be in force until September 6, will mean trains from London Liverpool Street will stop at Manningtree, with buses laid on to take passengers to Ipswich, from where services to Stowmarket, Lowestoft and Felixstowe will resume.

However, train passengers from Suffolk have be warned to expect at least an hour added to their round journeys to London while the tunnel is closed.

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