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Wednesday, 2 January, 2002, 12:50 GMT
Could commuters bring Britain to a halt?
Rail passengers could rise up in anger like the fuel protesters, the government has been warned. But could it really happen?

By many standards, 2001 was a dreadful year for rail passengers. Following the Hatfield crash the year before, delays and disruptions to services persisted.

In the six months to October only two of the 25 train companies improved punctuality. Signal failures accounted for almost 25,000 delays last year, on average 10 minutes long. And Railtrack, which owns the stations and track, was declared bankrupt.

Commuters alighting at station
Will the normally placid commuter snap?
While blaming much of the disruption on policies devised by the previous Conservative government, in December Transport Secretary Stephen Byers admitted train services were worse than ever.

Now, new research reportedly shows the government could face passenger protests on a scale similar to the crippling fuel blockades of September 2000.

But could Britain's famously reserved commuters really rise up in anger? Similar doubts were expressed before the fuel blockades, but perhaps the events that led to that unprecedented action could provide useful pointers.

A month before the blockades, motorists were called on to show their displeasure at rising fuel prices by boycotting the petrol pumps for one day only.

Garage owner in deckchair
Day to forget: Few got on board the Dump the Pump campaign
Called Dump the Pump, the event appeared to be largely ignored by drivers, leading the then transport minister Gus McDonald to comment that it had met with a "very British response".

But with hindsight, the campaign seems to have raised awareness of the simmering anger at high fuel prices.

A similar day of action is being planned for 1 March 2002, by the National Organisation of Commuters Rail Action Protest. The group has warned that passengers will be asked to stop using trains for a day unless things improve.

Before September 2000, the so-called "fuel escalator" - the policy of increasing duty on petrol and diesel - had pushed up prices over several years and this was compounded by hikes by the oil producers.

Couple at ticket machine
"Is it 25% cheaper if I pay in euros?"
A few days before the blockades took off, oil producers announced prices were increasing by another 2p a litre.

The price of rail travel in Britain seems every bit as controversial as that of petrol. Fares are 25% above the European average, according to a recent government report and further rises are on the way.

On 6 January, fares on some services will rise by up to 17%, although on the heavily used south-east commuter routes, companies are being forced to lower prices because of continued poor performance.

The blockade of oil refineries in Britain had been foreshadowed by similar action in France a few days earlier. Some of those on this side of the Channel said the militancy of their French counterparts had inspired them to similar action.

Sadly for rail passengers, there is little likelihood of a rail revolt in France, where services are among the cheapest and most efficient in Europe.

According to Professor Peter Waddington, an expert in protest politics, organisation is the key to any successful protest.

Leaves on the line sign at East Weell station
Leaves on the line: Just one cause of rail delays
"Grievances alone do not make protests. With the fuel protests you had the road haulage lobby and the farmers lobby. From those you get networks; people who know people," says Mr Waddington.

Although passenger bodies do exist, do they have the network of contacts among ordinary commuters to be effective at protest?

A key fact in the fuel protests was that relatively few people were involved in direct action. Protesters never numbered more than 2,500, but by blocking refineries - and, some speculate, gaining the support of oil tanker drivers - they cut the supply lines.

"Where are the pinch points in the case of the railways?" says Mr Waddington. Passengers could occupy trains and refuse to move, but the train could be "shunted into the sidings and they would be left to get cold, hungry and bored. Then how long would the sit-in last?"

The fuel protests appeared to be about more than the price of petrol and diesel. Farmers, who led the blockades along with hauliers, were in the midst of a wider, agricultural, crisis and some speculate that fuel was simply a side issue.

It's hard to spot a wider crisis among rail passengers, but if the heavily forecast recession does happen in 2002, tensions among the already uptight commuting public could increase.

It is estimated that rail delays cost the economy 17m last year as workers turned up late. Is it conceivable that if managers were forced to cut out their least productive staff members, those who travel by train could be first in line to go?

See also:

13 Dec 01 | UK
Rail services worsening
29 Dec 01 | England
Plan to scrap train toilets
07 Sep 00 | Europe
Channel Tunnel under siege
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