MERSEYRAIL was last night making a final scramble to head off strike action by train guards on Good Friday and Grand National weekend.
The rail firm took the rare step of offering to go into binding arbitration talks with the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMT) after officials rejected the employer's latest deal linked to a 35-hour working week.
If RMT agrees, the negotiations would be brokered by the independent industrial conciliation service Acas, and any decision would be binding on both parties.
However, last night a spokesman for RMT said the union had not been formally made aware of the final arbitration offer. He added union leaders had received no response from Merseyrail to an earlier offer for further talks today. or tomorrow.
It means a 24-hour walkout by around 170 of Merseyrail's 200 guards is likely to go ahead on Good Friday.
But both sides say they hope the dispute will be resolved before a 48-hour planned strike over Grand National weekend, on April 8 and 9.
Merseyrail last night vowed to go ahead and run a reduced Good Friday train service - normally the equivalent of a Saturday service - despite the stoppage.
A spokesman told the Daily Post: "It looks like we will be able to run the equivalent of a Sunday service if the strike does go ahead on Friday."
He added: "In the meantime we have offered to go into binding arbitration. We are willing to do everything we can to head off industrial action.
"We came up with a much improved offer, and we are disappointed the union has decided not to put that to its members.
"We have shown we are willing to come up with a decent package, but there has to be some give and take."
RMT is asking for a 35-hour working week for guards, who currently work 36 hours a week, to bring them into line with other Merseyrail employees.
Talks brokered by Acas last Thursday resulted in an improved deal, including a pay rise, better overtime rates and an extra £450 exclusive of the 2005 pay review.
But RMT leaders rejected the deal on the grounds that guards will still lose four rest days a year.
Last night, union spokesman Andy Boyack said: "We have told Merseyrail we are available for further talks tomorrow but we haven't had any response from them.
"The guards are very angry. Other staff work a 35-hour week and they don't see why they are being treated differently."
RMT members have also voted to go ahead with a 48-hour strike on April 8 and 9, which will cause widespread disruption over Grand National weekend.
Mr Boyak said: "Grand National weekend is one of the most stressful times for our guards.
"We also chose those dates to put the greatest pressure on the employer, because it is one of their busiest weekends.