The first national rail strike in 16 years drew a step closer yesterday as Network Rail revealed it had considered contingency plans to handle thousands of workers walking out.
Strike ballot results are expected tomorrow by 12,000 maintenance workers over the dispute about job cuts, pay and changes to working practices tomorrow, which unions claim will compromise safety. The second ballot result is due on 19 March, by 5,000 signallers.
A further 2,500 supervisors are also being balloted, with the result due on Friday.
Both the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) are continuing in talks with the rail operator to avert industrial action.
But the rail company’s chief executive Iain Coucher yesterday confirmed plans were in place to deal with any walkout, the Independent has reported.
“The strike may happen – we hope it won’t – but we have contingency plans in place and we are fairly optimistic that we will be able to run an interrupted service,” he said.
“Two years ago, we had similar strikes for four days, and trains ran perfectly, so we are optimistic we can deal with that, but I can absolutely assure you we will not take risks with safety.”
Network Rail’s director of operations, Robin Gisby, also insisted the changes to working practices – some of which date back to the 1950s – would go ahead, adding he would not stand for the country to be “held at ransom”, according to the Daily Mail.
Gisby said National Rail, which employs 35,000 staff, hoped to achieve the “vast majority” of the 1,500 job losses through voluntary redundancy, adding that 1,100 staff had already sought this option. Compulsory lay-offs could not be ruled out, however.
The proposed changes at Network Rail are aimed at saving £4bn by 2014.