Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Running us off the rails: Faced with strikes, commuters are learning to live without trains. Madsen Pirie explains

JIMMY KNAPP, general secretary of the RMT, probably takes heart from polls that purport to show a high level of public support for the signalmen. He would be foolish to do so. In fact, what both the Mori and Gallup surveys show is that the public is less inconvenienced by the rail strikes than most analysts predicted. It is not that people feel the RMT's case to be justified and are willing to suffer hardship in a just cause; more that they are simply not bothered one way or the other.

What the strikes are doing should set alarm bells ringing in the RMT just as much as in the offices of Railtrack, however. They are teaching the public how to live without the railways. First there were the one-day stoppages in the middle of the week. When those failed to cause the massive disruption forecast, observers supposed that people had taken their work home or perhaps counted the unexpected midweek break as part of their holidays.

Then the union extended the dislocation to two days by staging strikes from midday to midday, effectively knocking out 48 hours rather than 24. (This was highly cost-effective for RMT members, who were able to cause two days' disruption for the loss of only one day's pay.) Once again, however, the effects on business and industry were considerably less than expected.

Of course, there has been alarmist talk about how much the strike is costing Britain in terms of time and activity lost, but many people have learnt to take such figures with a huge pinch of salt. They are rather like the figures given for the cost of mounting police or rescue operations, which seem to assume that the facilities would otherwise have been unused and the personnel involved unpaid. While there will undoubtedly be some losses, the huge figures bandied around will be avoided because people move both goods and themselves at other times or by other means.

We were then told that the extension of the strike to include a Monday would make a significant difference. Well, there were some traffic jams on London's outskirts yesterday, but nothing like what had been predicted - and this in a city where almost 40 per cent of people commute by rail on a normal weekday. There was no massive extra weight of cars on suburban commuter routes and no great density of city traffic either.

Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the timing of the strikes. Just as Arthur Scargill started the miners' strike going into a summer with record coal stocks, so Mr Knapp has led his troops on to a battlefield vacated by holiday-makers. No less significant is the absence from suburban routes of the school-run vehicles that augment the rush-hour congestion at other times of the year. The strikes are taking place at a time when fewer people need to travel and many firms are in a more relaxed summer mode that makes late arrivals less significant.

There are additional reasons, too, which are much more chilling for the future of the railways. The electronic age allows many people to work effectively from home. Not everyone uses computers and modems, but the spread of portable telephones and fax machines means that people are much more mobile and less tied to desks in the City.

The notion of people working full- time from home ('telecommuting' as the hi-tech prophets used to call it) was always a somewhat fanciful idea. But the ability to work a little more from home has become possible for many. With every rail strike more people bring forward the decision to acquire facilities that make working from home feasible. The fact is that large numbers could now manage to work the odd day of the week from home if they needed to without any significant loss in productivity. This is not good news for those whose jobs depend on supplying their future transport needs.

As well as finding it less necessary to travel, people have found alternative means. It would once have been unthinkable that people could manage without the railways, but even before the strike a diminishing proportion of passengers was choosing to rely on rail travel, just as an ever smaller fraction of freight transport was being sent by rail. Already less than 10 per cent of either passenger or freight miles are by rail, and both have diminished steadily. Each strike day encourages more people to try the alternatives; and a significant proportion will never return.

Intentionally or not, the RMT is telling us to give up the railway habit. Passengers are being encouraged to look for ways of doing without rail travel, just as Railtrack is undoubtedly looking for ways to do without signalmen. Despite its protestations to the contrary, the Government has little to lose. It can do it no harm, in these days of the smiling Tony Blair, to remind people that there are still antediluvian unions out there which the Labour Party cannot, or will not, repudiate.

That it has come to this is sad for anybody who enjoys rail travel and who thinks InterCity, in particular, offers a good service. If the present strikes continue, it will be only a matter of time before people contrast the morning view of an empty line from a railway bridge with the high traffic density to be seen from a motorway flyover.

Then thoughts will inevitably turn to paving over the tracks to make specialised fast routes into cities for heavy traffic. To those who worry that motorway tolls might drive the lorries back again through small towns and villages, such fast routes would be a godsend. The existing motorways could be toll roads, reserved for passenger cars and buses.

The strikes, which are now in their 10th week, seem to be teaching a lesson which both the RMT and Railtrack would prefer we did not learn. It is that we need the railways rather less than we thought, and that if they are to survive at all it will only be by making themselves sufficiently attractive to people who have other choices. The present dislocations and inconvenience to people who as yet have no choice are not the best way to achieve that.

The author is president of the Adam Smith Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)