The threat of the first national rail strike for 14 years, which would cripple train services across Britain, was raised today when the industry's biggest union announced that it was balloting 17,000 workers for industrial action.

The Rail Maritime and Transport Union said maintenance and signalling staff will vote over the next week on whether to launch a campaign of industrial action in two separate disputes.

The result of both ballots will be known on May 22 and strikes could start a week later, right at the beginning of the holiday season.

The union warned that if the strikes go ahead the railway system would be paralysed.