Leading Article: Rail union must act, or lose support

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THIS WEEK sees the last of the one-day rail strikes - stoppages that have proved less provocative to the public than might have been anticipated. From next week RMT, the transport union, has decided to go nuclear. It will call two- day-a-week strikes, the first beginning at noon on Tuesday, 26 July.

The timing is calculated to cause grave inconvenience to commuters and other passengers for at least three days each week, and to impose the maximum financial burden on Railtrack. But signal staff will lose only two days' pay. This is an unstable situation. Either the dispute will be resolved rapidly or the situation will degenerate into a lock-out or a full-scale strike.

The union is encouraged by opinion polls which show that most people blame the Government or the new holding company, Railtrack, rather than the strikers, for the recent, limited, disruption. There are several reasons for this. The first is essentially selfish. The dispute is not really hurting yet. Those who need to travel on a Wednesday have found ways of doing so, while many others have enjoyed a summer's day in the garden.

Then there is the issue of rail privatisation, which is unpopular with most rail users. Supporting striking signal staff is a symbolic way of demonstrating anxiety about the dismembering of BR. Equally important is the belief that an already unpopular Government intervened to veto an informal offer by Railtrack that would have led to a settlement six weeks ago.

Finally, some people feel that signal staff, whose numbers are down by one-third since 1980 as a result of new technology, and who earn, in the main, pounds 16,000 to pounds 20,000 a year, merit an increase. But it is not this conviction that is motivating most passengers.

The warning signal for the union is clear. The public is, for now, on its side. But if the going gets rough, the popular mood could change fast. What should Jimmy Knapp do? The answer, surely, is to seize the moment and challenge Railtrack to take the dispute back to the conciliation service Acas for binding pendulum arbitration. (Under this procedure, the arbitrator decides whether the company's final offer or the union's formal claim is more reasonable. He or she is not entitled to split the difference.)

If, as Mr Knapp insists, Railtrack is being intransigent under instruction from John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, the union should not find it too difficult to produce reasonable pay and productivity proposals acceptable to an independent arbitrator. But Mr Knapp should move fast, while public opinion is still on his side.