Arbitration offer in rail dispute but three more strikes still on

A rail union refused last night to call off three more one-day strikes, despite the region's biggest operator inviting it to take part in mediated talks.

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The RMT union is embroiled in a long-running dispute with Northern Rail over the role of guards on trains. The Government has guaranteed their jobs for eight years but wants them to lose responsibility for opening and closing the carriage doors.

The union has told its members to strike on three successive Saturdays, from August 25.

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Arriva Rail North, which operates the Northern franchise, said it has formally invited the union to meet under the chairmanship of the conciliation service, Acas.

The union said it would review the strikes depending on how talks progressed but was not prepared to call off its planned action.

David Brown, Northern’s managing director, said: “I have called on them to suspend their planned industrial action to allow these talks to take place and not disrupt our customers over three busy weekends.

“There are many events planned for the Bank Holiday and I hope that the union will consider the many families making plans for the last weekend of the summer holidays.”

The RMT leader, Mick Cash, accused the company of “playing for time” in previous meetings.

He said: “These talks will need to be meaningful and meet our aspirations and objectives to retain a safety-critical guard on every train.”

The offer of talks came on another day of wholesale delays and cancellations on the rails.

A tractor caused major disruption after blocking tracks and damaging overhead wires near Fitzwilliam in West Yorkshire, on Wednesday night.

Network Rail, the fire service and a specialist recovery service removed it from the line yesterday morning but delays and cancellations continued through the day while “infrastructure repairs” took place. Images of the scene showed a large uprooted tree on top of the tractor.

The newly-nationalised London North Eastern Railway said the vehicle had “broken the field boundary from a nearby farm and caused the damage”.

British Transport Police said no injuries were reported and the tractor driver would be interviewed “in due course”.

CrossCountry services between Leeds and South West, and LNER trains between Leeds and London were affected, as well as Northern lines between Leeds and South Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, acknowledged that the operation and regulation of the railways must be “fundamentally overhauled” following the summer’s timetable scheduling chaos.

Paul Plummer called for a “new arms-length body” to work with the industry to implement government strategy, and for more devolution of decision making to the regions.

He admitted that Wednesday’s announcement that the cost of season tickets would go up by 3.2 per cent in January was “understandably met with dismay” and that debate over the role of private companies in the railway “inevitably followed”.

He said: “The benefits of an integrated transport system must be realised through greater devolution.

“Governments must make long-term strategic decisions, stepping back from imposing well-meaning detail which ultimately stifles innovation.

“And we need clear accountability and leadership.”