The Socialist 6 September 2003
Teach Blair A Lesson
London blackout: Chaos shows up failure to invest
SIXTY YEARS ago London's tubes - then publicly owned - kept going through the Blitz. But on 28 August a summer storm caused a power failure that brought the now part-privatised London Underground (LU) and many overground services to a halt and deprived homes of power.
This blackout hit 250,000 people with scenes resembling the panic in New York's power crisis weeks earlier. The root cause was similar too - deregulation and privatisation.
A spokesperson said back-up generators couldn't cope with emergencies as big as this. "You practically need a power station," he lamented.
However LU used to have its own power station - Lots Road in west London. Last year it was shut down as the tubes were being part-privatised and it will become yet more luxury riverside housing for the rich.
This left the system to the mercies of a private consortium, Seebord Powerlink, in a deal under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). The tubes became dependent on the national grid.
As Bobby Law, the RMT railworkers' union London regional organiser, said: "Using PFI contractors to supply key public services does not work."
What's more, a split, diversified London transport network can't get an emergency alternative system going any more. Who controls the network? No-one.
What motivates it? The profits of many different bus, tube and train companies.
There should be no more PFIs. The unions should step up their fight to reverse tube privatisation, renationalise all the bus services and get proper government funding for transport so an effective emergency replacement service can be organised.
Britain's power supply network is in a similarly atrocious condition. Past governments were very slow in reinvesting.
Privatisation only made things worse, despite most new owners getting the industry at knockdown prices.
It's even more under-invested - a recent survey showed only two countries invest less in their infrastructure. It's also disastrously under-staffed.
Since privatisation around half of the staff have been sacked by cost-cutting bosses or left the industry. More cutbacks are threatened as low energy prices frighten off investment from profit-hungry companies.
To prevent even worse crises, the unions should fight to renationalise the whole privatised and fragmented system.
Under democratic workers' control and management an integrated power supply system could be built that could meet the needs of the public not just boost the profits of monopolies.
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