Leading Article: Not a way to run a railway

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A GOOD public transport system is the mark of a civilised country. Railways form a key element in such a service. Taking into account environmental pollution and the costs of road congestion, they provide the most efficient method of transporting large numbers of people and heavy freight over medium to long distances. The saddest aspect of the current strikes, which threaten to worsen in the wake of the yesterday's breakdown of talks, is that the dispute is damaging the future of Britain's railway system as a whole, as well as both parties involved.

Railtrack, destined to play a key role in the Government's deeply flawed plans for privatising British Rail, sprang into public consciousness when its original informal offer of 5.7 per cent to the signal workers' union, RMT, was quashed by the Government. The first impression was of incompetence. Railtrack had, it seemed, failed to appreciate the nature of its relationship to the Government and the public sector pay climate in which it was operating.

The Government's own interference in turn looked extraordinarily shortsighted. It was refusing to accept Railtrack's argument that its offer would be fully self-financing. It was needlessly antagonising a small union with the capacity to paralyse the network. It was sending alarm signals to all those preparing to bid for franchises to operate privatised rail services, raising fears of being held to ransom by disaffected workers operating the infrastructure. And in the short term it was jeopardising freight services using the new Channel Tunnel. The signal workers for their part seem ready to have their anachronistic pay and allowance arrangements restructured, but reckon they are not being offered enough for what is being asked of them. In particular, they want to be adequately rewarded for what they see as past contributions to productivity. Yet they show few signs of appreciating the damage being done to the future of their industry.

On top of the immediate losses caused by companies switching from rail to road transport and compensation claims by contract users, the strikes - and their relatively modest impact - raise the question of the railway's indispensability. As habitual passengers as well as commercial users make alternative arrangements, the question arises: could this small if elongated country survive with a yet further shrunken railway system?

It is evident that London, into which 75 per cent of commuting journeys are by rail, and perhaps a few other large conurbations, could not: they would choke to death in the resulting traffic. But for the rest, life would go on: overall, only 10 per cent of passenger journeys are by rail. But coaches, already stealing millions of passengers, would multiply, along with private cars and heavy lorries. Life in Britain would become that much nastier. If that is not what the Government, Railtrack and Jimmy Knapp's union want, they should swiftly end an unnecessary dispute that has already cost many times more than a realistic settlement.