SEAMEN'S STRIKE KEEPS RAIL FERRY AT THE DOCKS

SEAMEN'S STRIKE KEEPS RAIL FERRY AT THE DOCKS

The official launch of a new cross-channel freight train ferry scheduled for today was called off because of the continued blockade of the Port of Dover by truck drivers.

As new moves were made Wednesday to end the 14-week strike by Dover-based ferry crews, the inauguration of the 45 million ($85 million) ferry had to be postponed because the specially chartered train carrying officials and guests

from London to Dover would be unable to gain access to the ship.The 7,264-ton vessel is the largest train ferry ever built for cross- channel services and will double existing rail freight capacity.

The new service is a coordinated venture between British Rail's Railfreight International division, Sealink British Ferries, the Dover Harbour Board, the Port of Dunkirk and the French railway SNCF.

Ports on both sides of the English Channel remained paralyzed Wednesday as truck drivers who blockaded the docks earlier in the week refused to move their vehicles.

With over 600 trucks now parked on motorways outside Dover and hundreds more stranded on the other side of the channel, the drivers hope to force P&O European Ferries to settle the dispute with its ferry crews.

Sealink British Ferries, the other major ferry operator whose vessels are at a standstill, offered to commit all its ferry services out of Dover to freight for the next 48 hours if the drivers agreed to end their action.

In a parallel move, the National Union of Seamen general secretary, Sam McCluskie, offered to call off secondary picketing against Sealink if truck drivers promised to commit themselves to a freight contract with Sealink for the next two or three years. This could persuade Sealink to take on more of the seamen dismissed by rival ferry operator P&O.

Earlier in the week, Sealink said it was ready to employ an additional 450 seamen, but only on a temporary basis during the summer months.

After discussing the Sealink and NUS proposals among themselves, drivers stranded at Dover voted against ending their protest Wednesday evening, but hundreds more stuck outside the town were still considering the offers.

During an angry debate on the strike in the House of Commons Wednesday, opposition Member of Parliament Michael Meacher accused P&O chairman Sir Jeffrey Sterling of escaping prosecution over the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy last year because of his close relationship with the Conservative Party. Sir Jeffrey is an adviser to the government while P&O has made substantial contributions to party funds. The company bought European Ferries, which owned the ill-fated cross-channel ferry, just a few weeks before the ship capsized outside the Port of Zeebrugge with the loss of nearly 200 lives.

Also in Parliament, moves to end the National Dock Labour Scheme, which effectively guarantees dockworkers at some of Britain's older ports a job for life, were defeated Wednesday.