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rail - disputes in the north


Metro workers in northern England have been involved in two separate disputes. In Manchester one union is seeking recognition for drivers. In Newcastle workers want a shorter working week.

Aslef members on Manchester's Metrolink system held their second 24-hour strike and held a rally on Saturday 17 January. About 90 of the 340 staff now belong to that union. The employer, Serco (the same "outsourcing" company that runs Bradford's education -- see feature, p6), is hiding behind its current single-union agreement with the TGWU. Serco says that negotiating with Aslef would provoke a strike by its other workers.

Aslef and its members want to be directly represented in their own interest. They want to work alongside the TGWU. The TUC dispute committee will hold a hearing at the end of January about the alleged breach of rules. The rail union plans more stoppages if it fails to gain recognition.

In Newcastle metro workers held a one-day strike at the beginning of January. Members of the RMT and Amicus unions have been in a long-running dispute over working hours. They thought they had an agreement in 2002 to reduce the working week from 37 to 35 hours, but the employer, Nexus, refused to implement it. Stoppages were planned over Christmas, but were called off when a deal was made.

The workers rejected the deal, because they did not like conditions that the company attached to the reduction in hours. The employer then withdrew the offer and now says that any deal must look at the whole of the terms and conditions, which they believe are "among the best" for the region.

· A suppressed government report shows that Britain's railways are in an even worse state than previously thought. The annual report of the Strategic Rail Authority shows a ramshackle network that lurches from one crisis to another.

The fourth re-write of the government's 10-year plan has been binned because it needs far more than the £64 billion envisaged to fund it. Among the projects that have failed to secure investment are the urgent renewal of ageing main lines between London and Edinburgh and from London to the West Country and Wales.

Awaiting approval are the trans-London Crossrail and Thameslink 2000 schemes and the East London Line Extension integral to the bid for the 2012 Olympics.