Few win as rail strike runs on: Commuter cut-off takes the bloom off business for station retailers

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The Independent Online
RAILTRACK is losing pounds 6m on each day of the strike and Lloyds Bank pounds 50,000. Sean Brown's business is losing a mere pounds 1,500 - but is arguably hardest hit of the three. As a flower seller with outlets at two busy London stations, loss of revenue from the dispute translates instantly into reduced profits and jobs.

There are few winners in the rail strike. Even companies that might be expected to mint it on strike days complain. 'We don't want a rail strike in the summer,' said Simon Newman, managing director of the Brentford-based coach operator Armchair Passenger Transport. 'We want one between October and March.'

Mr Brown estimates that business has been down by as much as 90 per cent on the nine days on which stoppages have taken place so far. In total, he has lost about pounds 13,000, and has had to lay off staff.

'It's affecting me very badly,' he said. 'Everyone is talking about the problems and financial losses for British Rail, but not about the hundreds of millions being lost by businesses.'

Mr Brown, who relies on passengers for about 80 per cent of his trade, has shops at Liverpool Street and Waterloo, both hectic commuter stations. He has no doubt about how precarious the position is.

'I have lost about pounds 12,000 to pounds 13,000 so far. If they move on to five-day strikes, or over the weekend, we're talking about businesses going under.'

The fear recurs throughout the country among small retailers whose custom is almost exclusively derived from rail passengers. Newsagents, cafes, bars and taxi-drivers have all suffered. For them, without the safeguards of size, survival is at stake.

Stephen Alambritis, parliamentary officer for the Federation of Small Businesses, said: 'Large companies can hire a bus or a jet or a lorry to transport their goods or employees and worry about the cost and legal implications later.

'Small businesses do not have the resources or time to find alternative routes. They are working to tight deadlines to keep rent and rates paid and the bank manager happy. All it takes is one day's loss of takings to put that business in trouble.'

Michael Andreou, who runs a shoe-repair business at Waterloo, knows all about shoestring economics. 'Things are bad enough without the strikes, but they're just killing the trade of every single shop in this area. If they carry on, I just don't know how long we'll survive.'

Angela Samuels has seen pounds 100 a day disappear from the till of her dry cleaning business at Manchester's Piccadilly station. 'We have three staff, but we've put them on short time, coming in later and leaving early.'

In Poole, Dorset, tourist trade has been hit. Colin Treadwell, owner of The Buffers, a newsagent, tea and coffee shop, said: 'It should be our busiest time of the year. Tourists are usually flooding in to Poole station. But as it is, we're losing about pounds 400 for every day of the strike, and on strike days we close three hours early.'

Even London taxi drivers, who could be expected to benefit, are losing out. Commuters drive or catch a bus to work, or stay at home. None appear to be taking taxis all the way.

'I was hoping I might get a few rides in and out of the City, but I haven't had one,' said London cabbie Tony Sugg. 'Around the stations, the drop in trade is about 50 per cent - pounds 20 every day of the strike. That is a big hole. We're just about making ends meet.'

There are taxi drivers who benefit from the strike - but they are hard to find. A large minicab firm in south-east London reports that it is half as busy on strike days as it on normal days - because people take days off rather than make an expensive trek into town.

Out in the more affluent countryside, the story is different. 'The strike is wonderful, may it please continue for ever,' said Mervyn Hardy of Beeline Cars in Guildford, Surrey. 'We're in the stockbroker belt, so people have to get to meetings in London whether there is a strike or not.' Business, he says, goes up by 25 per cent on strike days.

There is a similar story in the hotel trade: those around the City have seen their business increase sharply - because City workers are told they must come to work or else - while the effect elsewhere has been less noticeable.

In the City, companies have also spent millions of pounds busing workers in. Lloyds Bank has been one of the biggest spenders, hiring 80 coaches per strike day at a cost of pounds 50,000. Midland spends pounds 30,000 on 50 coaches per day. Shell UK, employer of about 1,700 people in London, has spent pounds 10,000 per stoppage on 20 coaches.

This should have brought whoops of delight from coach operators - but it has not, because they are already so busy. ''We haven't got the coaches at this time of year,' said Armchair's Mr Newman. He has a contract to supply coaches to a bank whenever it needs them, and has found it difficult to meet the demand.

'I had to get coaches in from as far away as Cornwall one day, which cost me a fortune,' he said. 'If I could get together with Jimmy Knapp to plan the strikes, it would be wonderful.'

National Express, the long- distance coach operator, has found that its booking computers have been getting as overheated as its customers. 'Last week, our computer reservation system was 115 per cent up on a usual day,' a spokesman said. 'Our telephone enquiry lines are permanently engaged, but we can't bring in extra staff for the strike days because we don't have the lines.'

One company unequivocally chuffed by the strike is Budget Rent A Car. A spokeswoman said: 'In the week of the three-day strike we had no cars available at all in the South-east, which only usually happens at Christmas.'

(Photograph omitted)