ROBERT HARDMAN: Aboard 6.37 train from Guildford… back to the 70s

All aboard the 6.37 train from Guildford… back to the union hell of the 1970s: As railway workers launch a 27-day strike that will hit 850 services, ROBERT HARDMAN gets a taste of the misery on a packed train

As election bribes go, it was a belter: a whopping great bung. We are not talking about a few quid here and there over the next few years.

This one would amount to a four-figure sum for hundreds of thousands of people and several hundred quid for millions more.

The only problem for Jeremy Corbyn was that I could not find a single person at Waterloo Station last night who believed, for one minute, that an incoming Labour government would (or could) slash rail fares by a third – as Mr Corbyn declared yesterday.

‘Pull the other one’, ‘Not a chance’ and umpteen unprintable variations of the above were the instant response when I attempted to road-test Labour’s latest election pledge during the evening rush hour at London’s busiest station.

Home time: Commuters at Waterloo station were ‘packed in like sardines’ during the evening rush-hour yesterday as train guards began their 27-day walkout

They had good reason to be sceptical, of course. Just hours earlier, Mr Corbyn’s chums in the RMT transport union had begun their attempt at shutting down the entire South Western Railway (SWR) network.

Yesterday was Day One of what is scheduled to be the longest rail strike in living memory, one designed to make travelling in and out of Waterloo a misery for millions of people until the New Year.

Ostensibly, it is a row about SWR’s plans to run a new fleet of trains on which drivers (average salary: £52,000) and not guards will operate the doors – as they already do on so many other lines. Given that Labour’s proposed trade union reforms would rewind the clock to the 1970s – with a return to secondary picketing and open strike ballots – the rest of the country need only look at what is happening on SWR this week to enjoy a glimpse of life in a Corbyn Britain.

I decided to see for myself yesterday morning, setting out well before dawn with the well-wrapped commuters at one of SWR’s main hubs. Guildford in Surrey offers multiple options for travellers heading for the capital, whether on the fast Portsmouth-London line or along the suburban routes up to Waterloo. It also straddles the East-West route from Gatwick to the Thames Valley.

Come 6.15am, shivering commuters were already queuing three-deep for a London service which had been slashed in half for the crucial peak periods and then slashed further still for the rest of the day. On top of that, SWR had elected to send out shorter-than-usual trains and many of these were suffering delays.

Those who would normally arrive in hope of a seat came merely hoping for a few square inches of standing space. Those who usually spend the entire journey on their feet anyway – and that goes for most travelling in standard class at peak times anywhere within 30 miles of London – were just hoping for a moderately ghastly morning rather than a total nightmare.

Show of support: Protesters defend the striking workers outside Waterloo Station in central London

What struck me was their good humour. ‘Don’t forget it’s only Day One. So it’s only going to get worse,’ said Hugh, a City worker who usually commutes from nearby Wanborough except that SWR has closed his station for the duration of the strike.

‘I never get a seat at this time of day but that’s the least of my worries today,’ said Kelly, a Guildford regular bound for her desk in a Soho finance department.

The usual 6.27, 6.33 and 6.52 trains had been merged into a single 6.37 service. To make things worse, that arrived 12 minutes late. While Kelly joined the herd waiting to squeeze aboard, software executive Mark Finch was trying to get off, in the hope of a connection to Reading. He had arrived at his local station, Liphook in Hampshire, shortly after 6am. ‘There were four times the usual number of people on the platform and it was minus two! What a joke!’ he said.

What were his thoughts on the strike? ‘It’s just outrageous. They will have no sympathy whatsoever among commuters after this,’ he said. Like many of those I talked to, he wondered why it was so important to retain guards on the trains, given that drivers on other lines have cheerfully dispensed with them in exchange for a pay hike.

At which point, I was asked to leave the station by a manager from SWR. Media were not allowed to speak to passengers without permission from head office (a formal request was then declined on grounds of health and safety). Armed with a valid ticket, I hopped on to the 7.07 London-bound service, another sardine can, which had started its journey in Portsmouth. 

I found myself squeezed through a door and into the aisle of a first class section. Even here, all the seats had gone by the time the train had left Petersfield in Hampshire. Any first class season ticket holders jumping on at a later stop like Haslemere (where an annual first class season ticket costs over £7,000) would surely be pretty miffed.

Even those who did have first class seats were fed up, pointing out that they are unlikely to receive any compensation. ‘I pay £8,000 a year for this seat and I am going to have to stay in London for most of the week anyway,’ said Henry, a Petersfield regular heading for an office in St James’s.

He had already heard weekend reports of Labour’s proposed policy on rail fares, a scheme which would save him more than £2,000 a year. So, come election day, might he be swayed towards the Tories by the strike or towards Labour by the promise of a cheaper season ticket? ‘I quite like the idea of a benevolent dictatorship,’ he joked.

As we crawled in to Woking, I decided to extract myself from the train and assess the state of play here at the home of Britain’s most famous branch of Pizza Express.

Delays: Queues snake around Ealsfield Station in Wandsworth, south west London, on Monday

Woking is a major hub for trains from the South, the South West and the suburbs. Here, it must be said, the regular through-flow seemed to be working.

While some trains were at full capacity, passengers only had to wait a few moments to have another go. At 07.59, a London train was spilling out at the seams. Just one minute later, however, I joined a semi-fast service via Surbiton.

There I got off to find more packed platforms and a lot of people crammed inside the cosy fug of Caffe Nero waiting to dash out into the cold at the last minute to try their luck. Back on board another train, a rammed 08.27 slow coach to Waterloo, it was interesting to see hundreds of passengers tumble out as soon as the train reached the outer reaches of the Underground network at stops like Wimbledon and Clapham Junction.

By 9.15 I had reached Waterloo without witnessing fisticuffs or raised voices. Outside, a small picket by RMT strikers attracted the odd barbed remark but was largely ignored. I chatted to one group of striking drivers and guards who assured me that the strike was entirely about passenger safety and nothing to do with money. ‘And it’s going to cost us a lot of money in lost wages at a difficult time of year,’ explained one, declining to give me his name on the (not unreasonable) grounds that SWR could fire him for talking to the Press.

Last night, most homebound commuters were pointing the blame at the union bosses rather than the infantry. ‘The strikers might lose some of their wages but it won’t cost the union barons a penny of their £160,000 salary,’ said Julia, a civil servant, steeling herself for a slow slog back to Ascot having endured a ‘s***’ journey up at dawn.

For now, the London commuter remains a model of restraint. Yesterday, I noticed several commuters going to the trouble of thanking those SWR staff who had turned up for work. It was a sentiment echoed by Jeremy Varns, campaigns director of SWR Watch, a group lobbying for better services across the network. ‘A difficult decision for some,’ he tweeted to the strike-busters, ‘but collectively your efforts will help to ensure hundreds of thousands of passengers get to where they need to be.’

But for how much longer? And how will that sort of behaviour go down if Jeremy Corbyn’s commissars are calling the shots come December 13?

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