Since the Paddington rail disaster, the links between profits and rail safelty are clear. The lessons must be learned.
The privatisation of the railways "has been a catalogue of political cynicism, managerial incompetence and financial opportunism. It has cost taxpayers billions of pounds and brought rail travellers countless hours of delays... The scandal of rail in Britain is the gulf between the opulence of the rail companies and the oppression of their passengers... The promised investment of £27 billion by Railtrack is a sham...
"The first train operators made spectacular gains... "Even worse was the scandal of the rolling stock companies, sold in 1996... One of the three rolling-stock firms, Porterbrooke Leasing, was sold to senior BR managers for £528 million. But only eight months later Porterbrooke was sold on by a management buy-out team for £826m... the managers and staff of Porterbrooke who had invested a mere £300,000 of their own, made nearly £83.7m. Porterbrooke's managing director who invested £120,000, scooped £34m...
"It was a 'fat-cat carve up.
"As many as 18 franchises were let to people from the bus industry, many of whom knew nothing about rail."
Who wrote this scathing article? A rail union General Secretary? Tony Benn? No, these are the words of the "libertarian", right-wing, pro-free market Economist magazine.
The Economist, of 3 July, calculates the pre-tax profits of the rail companies for 1998 at £1.072 billion, or 19% of the industry's total revenues. It concludes "the privatisation of British Rail has proved a disastrous failure" and predicts "things are going to get worse".
As we go to press, bodies are still being pulled from the terrible rail crash outside Paddington station in which, perhaps, over a hundred people have died. Initial reports speculate that a red light had been crossed, and the debate in the papers and on TV and radio has centred on the question of rail safety. Almost no-one is denying the link between cost-cutting and corner-cutting on safety.
The Economist report states clearly that Railtrack, the giant infrastructure-owning company whose pre-tax profits ran to £398 million, was saving money using "patch and mend" and quotes an anonymous senior rail-industry figure as saying "This policy is dangerous," and that the system "cannot be operated safely".
Both the previous Tory administration and the current Labour Government have allowed the rail companies to skimp on safety while profits balloon. Rail workers have been made to suffer the consequences of privatisation. Rail industry working hours are now running at an average of 45.3 hours per week, which includes 7.5 hours overtime as workers stay on the job in order to earn a living wage (New Earnings Survey, 1998). It is inevitable that working such long hours will mean that some workers make mistakes at work.
The bosses are happy to scapegoat individual workers, which takes the focus away from the general conditions of work and the state of the industry, and focuses on the "individual failings" of ordinary workers.
Mick Rix, the train drivers' union ASLEF General Secretary, has warned the rail companies that they have one week to address network safety or they will face strike action. Rix demands that they fit all trains with the fail-safe automatic train protection system, ATP. The companies claim that it costs too much. Rix says: "No longer must cost be put before public safety".
We say: Yes - and cut the working week to 35 hours with no loss of pay; re-nationalise the railway under workers' control. This is the only policy which can guarantee that people come higher in the calculations of those who operate our railways than profit, and that tragedies such as the one we have just witnessed never happen again.
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