The price of strife: pounds 16m a day

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There is little doubt that the strikes by British Rail drivers will hit business much harder than last year's industrial action by signal workers. While BR managed to provide an increasing number of services on most major routes last year, employers now face a much tougher time.

Signal box supervisors were pressed into service, but only around 200 employees in managerial grades are capable of driving trains and the overwhelming majority would need refresher courses. Senior officials at BR headquarters have warned business leaders that they hold out little hope of ameliorating the damaging effects of the industrial action.

The Institute of Directors estimates that the signal strikes cost its members pounds 180m, around pounds 16m a day. The institute acknowledges that this time it could be considerably worse.

While the corporate battalions of the CBI also wring their hands over the drivers' action and warn about the effect on the economy, by far the greatest impact will be felt by smaller businesses.

Large corporations have the financial clout to hire coaches to get their employees into work and put key staff up in hotels. A greater proportion of staff will also be teleworkers. In the longer term they could avoid the inconvenience of industrial action by installing more screens in their employees' homes. Not so for the firm that counts its turnover in tens of thousands rather than billions.

Stephen Alambritis of the Federation of Small Businesses said that 800 small companies were going out of business every week and the rail strikes could increase the figure to 1,000 the level at the height of the recession. Much of his members' business relies on commuters passing through their usual stations buying sandwiches, newspapers and making impulse purchases. Fewer commuters means a steep drop in takings.

Perhaps more serious from BR's point of view are the long-term strategies of large companies. Could the present industrial action simply accelerate the trend towards teleworking? More teleworkers equals fewer commuters.

Barrie Clement