New strike threat to escalate rail crisis


BRITAIN: Mr Tony Blair backed his beleaguered Transport Secretary, Mr Stephen Byers, last night as the crisis on Britain's railways deepened with the threat of fresh strike action across the country.

As an estimated 350,000 commuters endured the fourth day of strike action against South West Trains, Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) officials rejected the company's 7.6 per cent pay offer and announced plans for another 24-hour stoppage on January 24th and 25th.

At the same time members of the RMT working for Arriva Trains Northern said they would strike on the same date, and again on February 5th and 6th, in a separate dispute over pay which will spread the disruption to hundreds of thousands more commuters in northern England.

A separate dispute hit 25 per cent of Scot Rail trains yesterday, while the second day of the latest 48-hour strikes crippled services in the south of England, with only 10 per cent of services running on the busy commuter line into London. But RMT's acting general secretary, Mr Vernon Hince, said South West Train's "offer" was actually only worth 4.2 per cent and insisted the company had "no intention of making a negotiated settlement". He continued: "They have gone above our heads, straight to our members. It does not answer our claim. There is nothing about shorter working hours. It could mean escalation."

Mr Byers, meanwhile, freshly restored from his holiday in India, refused to intervene in the industrial action despite a growing belief that the crisis on the railways and roads of Britain could replace the National Health Service as the biggest challenge to the Blair government.

"In this day and age disagreements like this should not be settled by strike action," Mr Byers told the BBC, while urging the unions and operating companies to put the travelling public first and settle their differences.

And he seemed to confirm himself in the transport hot-seat until the next general election, following reports yesterday that Mr Andrew Smith, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was being lined up to replace Mr Byers, who would be sacked at "an appropriate time". Dismissing the continuing speculation about his position, Mr Byers said he "looked forward" to discussing transport improvements in "three or four years time". Of Mr Blair, Mr Byers said: "He (Tony Blair) wants me to get on with the job to improve the railway system and that is what I am going to do."