The Rail Dispute: Support for strikers starting to wear thin: Commuters losing patience with signal workers as disruption enters eighth week

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The Independent Online
SIGNS THAT the striking signal workers are beginning to forfeit public sympathy emerged yesterday as the eighth week of rail disruption began.

While a survey by BBC's Greater London Radio, GLR - one of the biggest tests of public opinion since the strikes started - showed commuters to be almost exactly divided, a clear majority said they would turn against the signalmen if the strikes continued for another week.

The leader of the principal passengers' pressure group called on the signalmen to halt industrial action for two weeks or risk losing the goodwill of the public.

The GLR survey showed that 50.2 per cent of almost 470 commuters questioned at seven mainline London stations backed the signal workers' action, while 49.8 per cent did not. But asked if they would still back the union if strikes continued after next week, the proportion fell to 44 per cent.

Twenty-eight per cent of those questioned said their support for the strikes had decreased since the first stoppage, but 10 per cent were now more strongly in favour of industrial action.

Signal workers had a good case but the union had gone 'over the top' in escalating industrial action, and should call a halt for a fortnight, said Major-General Lennox Napier, chairman of the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee.

'There's an opportunity for the union to gain a lot of brownie points. Not striking for two weeks would put the spotlight back on to Railtrack and keep the goodwill of passengers.

'I believe passengers will be indignant if the strike escalates to unreasonable levels. We are utterly neutral about the strike, but if it does escalate we can see the goodwill of passengers ebbing away.'

Maj-Gen Napier said as his committee published its annual report - showing complaints about rail services rising for the 12th successive year in London - that he had been in touch with both sides in the dispute but there was 'an absolute blockage'.

He said: 'It is the passengers, the rail industry and other industries that are suffering. Passengers are going to get cross and I believe the union is going to lose passenger support.'

A clear majority of commuters had lost patience with the signalmen's dispute at a typical Home Counties station yesterday.

Attitudes had hardened towards the strikers as passengers faced the latest disruption at Three Bridges Station, near Crawley, on the London Victoria to Brighton line.

Karen Pilani, who works for a building society, said: 'I've no sympathy for the strikers. It's got too hostile. I admire the people putting on trains.'

Iain Jee, a City worker, said: 'It's ridiculous. Everyone else isn't getting good pay rises. Why should they be the exception?'

Sarah Figgins, a personnel worker, said: 'I do have sympathy with the strikers but they should all be sitting round a table talking or going back to Acas.'

Six hundred British Airways cabin crew based at Manchester and Birmingham will vote this week on strike action that could be timed to coincide with industrial action on the railways.

The dispute is over allowances, worth up to pounds 500 a year, for compulsory dry-cleaning of uniforms. A union representative said cabin crew at Heathrow, Gatwick, Belfast and Glasgow had their bills paid, whereas those in Birmingham and Manchester did not.

(Photograph omitted)