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Home working ‘a problem’ for effectiveness of rail strikes

Home working is ‘a problem’ for the effectiveness of the rail strikes, according to an academic expert (Alamy/PA)
Home working is ‘a problem’ for the effectiveness of the rail strikes, according to an academic expert (Alamy/PA)

Home working is “a problem” for the effectiveness of the rail strikes, according to an academic expert.

Gemma Dale, a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University, told the PA news agency the ability of office workers to do their jobs from home means there is less pressure on the Government to resolve the dispute.

Rail services are being severely disrupted this week by around 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) on Network Rail and 13 train operators conducting walkouts in a row over jobs, pay and conditions.

But many commuters are avoiding the chaos by working from home, which has become much more common due to the coronavirus pandemic.

London Euston station was virtually deserted on Tuesday
London Euston station was virtually deserted on Tuesday (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

During the first day of strike action on Tuesday, major railway stations were virtually deserted and increases in car use and bus travel was limited.

Ms Dale noted that the strike is “still causing some disruption for that 50% of the population who can’t work in an office”.

She said: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say (home working) is going to fundamentally undermine strike action because it is still of course a huge issue to not have an effective rail service running across most of the country.

“However, it isn’t going to be causing big business to be putting pressure on the Government in the way that it might have done pre-pandemic.

“I think (home working) isn’t fundamentally damaging (to strikes) but it is something of a problem.”

Location technology firm TomTom said congestion levels at 11am on Tuesday were higher than at the same time last week in a number of cities, such as London (from 38% on June 14 to 51% on Tuesday), Cardiff (from 24% to 29%), Liverpool (from 24% to 30%), Manchester (from 27% to 34%) and Newcastle (from 18% to 20%).

But a Department for Transport spokeswoman said “national traffic volumes yesterday were no busier than usual levels”.

She went on: “People didn’t rush to the roads as we might have seen with strikes in the past.

“With many people now able to work online, this shows the unions aren’t having the overall impact they would have hoped, and sheds more light on the need for reform to reflect changing travel habits and modernise our railways.”

In 2019, only around one in eight (12%) working adults in the UK when questioned said they had worked from home at some point in the previous week.

Since the pandemic began, the Office for National Statistics has run a separate and more regular survey asking adults in Britain about working habits.

The latest figures for the period from May 25 to June 5 found that 38% of working adults questioned said they had worked from home at some point over the past seven days.

This percentage has fluctuated during the virus crisis, but has typically been between 30% and 40%.

Ms Dale said the “vast majority” of office workers have the capability and skills which makes “shifting to a day (working) from home fairly straightforward, more straightforward than perhaps it ever has been”.

She went on: “For office workers, the need for organisations to drag people in regardless (of the strikes) and say to them ‘You’ve either got to take some holiday or find another way in’, that doesn’t exist in the way that it used to.

“But of course, the strain is still very much there on the other half of the population who don’t have any choice but to go and do their work in a physical workplace, whether that’s retail, caring, nursing etc.

“So it’s a bit of a mixed picture, but I think the chaos of old perhaps is not quite the problem today.”

Before the virus crisis, the rail industry earned much of its revenue from commuters buying season tickets, which allow unlimited travel between two locations for a specified length of time, from a week up to a year.

Office of Rail and Road figures show the number of journeys made with these tickets in Britain during the year to the end of March was just 28% of pre-pandemic levels.

Only 167 million season ticket journeys were recorded in 2021/22, compared with 588 million two years ago.