Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/237/25052
THE CRISIS on the railways has recently overshadowed even the crises in education and the health service. Whilst railway workers fight against low pay and aggressive and ineffectual management, the whole railway system is crying out for more investment. We explain the socialist solution to the railway crisis.
The Worst Railways In Europe
WHEN GOVERNMENT minister Peter Hain blurted out what most people had long ago concluded about the state of Britain's railways, he was slapped down by Downing Street. A mere minister for Europe couldn't comment on transport and he certainly shouldn't tell the truth.
Britain's railways may be the worst in Europe now but they've always suffered from under- investment as the profiteers held sway over the development of a modern transport system.
At the beginning of the last century there were 217 different railway companies, with over 1,400 directors wanting their share of the spoils. As a result, railway workers were on poor wages whilst fares and freight rates were high. Capitalism as a whole needed a cheap and efficient railway system but the individual companies of course always put profit first.
Fundamental changes in the way the railways were run didn't happen until the creation of the nationalised British Railways in 1948. The railway system emerged from the war worn out and in desperate need of investment. Under nationalisation, steam gave way to electric and diesel, and tracks and signalling were replaced.
But investment was never enough for the development of modern industry and rail often lost out to road freight carriers. British Rail was always treated like a private company, with profit and loss the main driving force.
In the 1960s many branch lines and stations were closed after a notorious report by Beeching, chair of the British Railways Board. After numerous other reports about British Railways' debts, the end of the nationalised system came with the election of the Tory government in 1979.
Desperate to offload the responsibility for future investment in the railways and ideologically committed to privatisation, 'restructuring' began in 1982. The hotels, Sealink ferries and the railway workshops were sold off first, along with British Rail's legendary catering arm 'Travellers Fare.'
Completing the job, Railtrack was formed in 1994 and privatised in 1996, after the Tories wrote off £1 billion in debts. The sell-off of the rest of the network was completed just before the 1997 general election.
The under-funded, unaccountable inefficient British Railways was replaced by Railtrack and 28 (now 25) under-funded, unaccountable and inefficient train operating companies. And this disaster for rail in general became the Southall, Paddington, Hatfield and Selby disasters.
The View From The Front Line
A SENIOR union rep from the rail union RMT spoke to The Socialist about the effects of privatisation.
PRIVATISATION IS a complete and utter disaster. The government is discredited in the eyes of railway workers and yet they want to continue privatisation. Blair and Byers attack railway workers and call for 'new and innovative ways of solving disputes' but what are they?
The only people who are never consulted about how the railways are run are the workers who actually keep the railways going. We're at the front line when everything goes wrong. Big business, senior civil servants, the privateers all got consulted but not us.
There is fury and anger over pay but there's also fury, anger and desperation over the whole state of the industry.
Hundreds of trains a day are cancelled because there are no drivers or no trains. You can see how bad it is by the shambles after the Hatfield disaster. Railtrack have neglected repairs and improvements so the whole west coast mainline north of Carlisle had to be shut and there were speed restrictions all over the place.
As far as investment and renationalisation are concerned the interests of railway workers and the travelling public are the same. People like the transport users' consultative committees attack the rail unions for taking action but we're the ones who are arguing for more investment. We campaign against overcrowding, for clean trains, for decent facilities for the passengers and against the fare price rises.
MPs support local campaigns about the rail services and then they vote with the government on privatisation and attack the RMT.
There's no direction in the industry, it's seen to be in crisis. People turn up for work and they're not surprised when their train isn't moving. They have to face irate passengers, including the elderly who are apprehensive about their journey anyway.
The service is terrible, the trains are filthy because they've got rid of cleaners and by the afternoon the toilets don't work because the train hasn't been filled up with water. The fares have been increased and most of the time the catering doesn't turn up.
They should take the market away from the railways. It's a public service which needs investment and it should be accountable to the public and to the workforce. Their ethos is to make money out of everything but fund nothing. Blair has moved on to the Tories' ground and the Tories have got worse. Working class people only vote Labour now because the Tories are seen as even worse.
The railways are a real dog's breakfast now and Byers and the rest of them have to take responsibility. They can't blame the Tories forever.
I used to be the only person who argued our union should disaffiliate from the Labour Party, now that's changing, more people are agreeing with me.
A Socialist Programme For The Railways
AS SOCIALISTS, we demand that the rail industry be properly funded with investment in rail safety the number one priority.
Rail workers are the real experts on the industry. They know where investment is required to ensure proper safety and the efficient running of the system. The rail unions must be on the board of a wholly publicly owned rail industry.
Representatives should be directly elected by the workers through their own union structures with the wages of an average railworker. If they fail to represent the real interests of the rail workers they should be removed if necessary to be replaced by others who will.
The working class as a whole must also have a direct say in the industry. The trade unions are the mass organisations representing the working class. They, along with consumer groups, passenger groups and others, including political parties which fully support the concept of public ownership, should have representation on the rail board.
A democratic socialist transport plan needs to be introduced to ensure the integration of all forms of public transport, including rail, the bus industry, air transport and London Underground in an environmentally friendly way.
- Renationalise rail and transport under democratic working-class control and management.
- Rich shareholders who made fortunes out of privatisation should get no compensation. Small shareholders should get compensation on the basis of proven need. All railworkers who have suffered financial loss should be fully compensated.
- Seize the bosses' profits and reclaim all public subsidies.
- Implement a massive programme of investment to improve safety and service provision.
- Bring the rail bosses to justice for neglecting safety in their drive for profit.
A Conductor's Working Life
A CONDUCTOR on Arriva Trains Northern, who has just voted to strike over pay, spoke to The Socialist:
"The train can't start without a driver but it also can't start without a conductor [formerly guard].
I've worked there for over 6 years. When I first started it was regional railway but then it was privatised under Arriva. Since I first started they've tried to water the job down.
Before the train can start I have to make sure the signals are off on the platform and check no one is stuck in the doors or anything. Then I have to collect the fares and look after the passengers. At every station you have to watch people getting on and off and check the doors.
We still have to be trained for if there's an accident or a fire even though they've taken the train protection duties off us. This meant if the train failed for any reason, we had to protect the train and get assistance. Now the drivers are supposed to do that, we only do it if the driver is incapacitated.
We were upset about losing those duties. We balloted to strike but the company took the union to court because it was Railtrack's decision to change our duties, not Arriva's.
We're only on £15,500 a year plus commission, which is 3% of the ticket sales. This is for a 35-hour week.
The earliest start is 4.15am. One week we work afternoons then early mornings the next week. But our last pay rise consolidated the shift allowances into basic pay. You get extra for working Sundays but you have to work them when you're booked to, if they can't find anyone else to swap.
If the train is delayed because the driver is late coming from another train or the train isn't platformed, its all aggro from the passengers.
Sometimes I don't go down the train if it's really late. I'd rather lose the commission than get a smack. I've been threatened myself but some people I know have been physically assaulted. I don't go down the train if I don't feel safe.
I don't think I know anybody in our mess room who doesn't believe that the railways should be renationalised. But people think the government don't want the responsibility or the cost of running the railways. Railways should be a public service not here for companies to make a quick profit."
The RMT And The Labour Party
ONE WEEK before the last RMT annual general meeting (the equivalent of the union's national conference) our national leaders handed over £60,000 to the 'New' Labour Party. The party took our money, thanked our bureaucrats politely and used it to campaign on a programme of mass privatisation, including London Underground!
Bill Johnson, RMT London Underground
The timing of our generosity is significant. The union's leadership were worried that the AGM would block further donations on this scale. They were right to worry. Most rank and file union members working on the underground are amazed when told that their union is still contributing to the Labour Party.
In the event the AGM voted to review our support for Labour and agreed to withdraw our support if the party continues with its current anti-union policies. Several RMT branches on the tube have now affiliated to the 'Campaign for an Independent Fund' (a specific RMT campaign). My own branch supported the campaign unanimously - including at least one Labour Party member!
This reflects a certain amount of confusion that still exists amongst the union's 'left'. There are those who campaign around the slogan of 'Through Labour where possible, against Labour where necessary'. This is a position that has been taken up, without stating it explicitly, by Bob Crow, the left candidate for general secretary.
Supporters of this position differentiate two or three RMT sponsored Labour MPs such as Tam Dalyell, John Marek and Gwyneth Dunwoody from another ten including Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, London Transport Minister Keith Hill, and London Mayor failure Frank Dobson.
All of these MPs take our union's money and frauds like Prescott deserve particular opprobrium. Nevertheless, it is time to draw the conclusion that New Labour is beyond salvation and a new party must now be built. Prevarication over this issue will only cause delay in starting the real project of constructing a new workers' party.
The degeneracy of New Labour is typified in the failure of opponents of PPP to even win enough support within the party's 'policy forum' for the issue to be debated at Labour Party conference. The Labour left could not even get it on the agenda, let alone defeat the leadership.
Rail-workers have a proud tradition of fighting for the political representation of workers. In 1900 ASRS (the Associated Society of Railway Servants) General Secretary, Richard Bell was one of the first trade-unionists elected to parliament.
Sitting opposite him were 53 rail company bosses. Also in 1900 the ASRS successfully moved a resolution at the TUC calling for an independent party of Labour.
A year later the infamous Taff Vale Judgement ordered the rail unions to pay over £20,000 compensation to their bosses following a strike. The determination to put workers into parliament grew stronger.
It is a crime that the legacy of struggle, by railway and other workers, to build a party of Labour, has been desecrated by the architects of New Labour today. We should recognise the historic achievements of our trade unions, which have brought dignity and improved conditions for millions of working people.
But we must also recognise that the history of the Labour Party, as a force for defending workers and our unions, has come to an end.
New Labour is now so bankrupt that I think socialists should call for formal disaffiliation from the party. Some may accuse us of taking an apolitical position and throwing away what influence we have. None will be able to identify what influence that is.
Disaffiliation is a first step. Firstly it deprives Blair of our members' fees. Let him raise his own money to organise the sale of our jobs to Balfour Beatty. Secondly it will settle the issue of what we can expect from New Labour ...nothing!
In the process it will save our union and its members the wasted energies currently directed towards the party. We should argue for our unions to support socialist candidates in forthcoming elections but most importantly, like the rail-workers at the turn of the twentieth century, we must now campaign for our unions to use their organisational and financial resources to build a new mass party to lead the battles of the working class.
Rail Guards Fight For Decent Pay
WHEN THE railway network was split into 'business units', everyone knew it was to prepare for privatisation but the rail bosses said it was to increase 'customer orientation and focus'. But they struggled with the regional companies when they did privatise them, companies didn't think they would be profitable.
A senior RMT, rail union, rep, Arriva Trains Northern
The north-east franchise was initially taken over by the privatised Liverpool bus company MTL, which was an industrial relations disaster. They allowed a lot of drivers to retire and many others left because they could get higher wages with other companies.
So this year Arriva, who now run the network, had to pay the drivers an 18% increase, a £400 Christmas bonus, backdated pension benefits and some improvements in their conditions.
They did this without consultation, so as soon as the other grades found out they all demanded meetings with management. We demanded to know why the normal bargaining procedures had been broken and the company was acting unfairly.
We had to call a strike ballot. I felt warm inside when we got the result - 94% in favour of industrial action, on a 73% turnout, one of the highest we've ever had in the RMT.
The company may try to break the strike on 24/25 January but the members will stick by what they said in the ballot. In any case the ballot was within the strict Tory anti-union laws yet we're still being slagged off and attacked. No wonder the members are saying to us "Why bother to negotiate with the company, let's just go on strike."
There's been a vicious management campaign against the unions in Arriva. They removed trade union material from people's pigeonholes and took the union posters off the union notice boards. But in Carlisle they just made Christmas decorations out of the posters so the company couldn't do anything.
All four members of the Arriva Trains Northern Conductors' council of RMT have been gagged by the company. They can't make statements to the press about the dispute under the threat of disciplinary action. This is an archaic attitude by the company.
Companies like South West Trains (SWT) are victimising union reps like Greg Tucker and Sarah Friday, using the safety regulations, because they got results. The RMT have a similar pay dispute with SWT. All the companies would like to get rid of effective union reps.
Bob Crow is standing for general secretary of the RMT and because he is seen to be on the left there's a campaign from the right, from RMT-sponsored MPs and the TUC leaders, to ensure he doesn't get elected. (see below)
Management's record speaks for itself. The managing director of Arriva is from the discredited Railtrack. He replaced a bloke called Nigel Patterson who told us on a Thursday that he was there for the long haul to turn the company around but he was gone by the Monday. The other directors include one from Woolworth's and one from the Halifax Building Society.
Some passengers have set up their own website: www.arrivasucks.com to co-ordinate their complaints against the company. But they support our strike: "... let us hope Arriva does the decent thing and addresses the pay of conductors who on the whole provide exceptional service given the low morale faced, infrastructure problems and crumbling rolling stock."
As of 15 January 2002, the strike on Arriva Trains Northern and South West Trains is set for 28/29 January, the second Arriva strike will be on 12/13 February. Workers on Connex South East are also contemplating action after rejecting a pay offer.
"WE'RE UPSET about the pay. The drivers got a pay rise and a bonus last year but they won't pay us. Management caused problems by getting rid of a lot of experienced drivers. They didn't think anyone would go sick or go on holiday.
They think their plans look OK on paper but it doesn't work like that. People above have never seen how things really work. They've got rid of all the people with real experience of how the railways run.
I reckon the 24/25 January strike will be quite solid. The only trains will be taken out by managers."
Rail guard, Arriva trains
RMT General Secretary Candidate Attacked
BOB CROW, candidate for rail union RMT's general secretary, has exposed how a senior TUC official attempted to sabotage his election campaign. Even more seriously he has described how he was physically attacked by 'hired thugs' in the early hours of New Year's Day.
TUC media officer Mike Power wrote a report advising Bob Crow's election rival to refer to Crow as a 'fanatic' and that the RMT was a union 'on the brink'.
The briefing was also circulated to the press and it was taken up by London paper, the Evening Standard, which ran a two-page attack on Crow, 'the man who even scares the TUC'.
TUC general secretary John Monks has been forced to disassociate the TUC from the briefing, saying that Power's conduct is being dealt with as a serious disciplinary matter.
In an extremely serious development, on the day the general secretary election papers were sent out, Bob Crow was attacked on his doorstep by thugs with iron bars.
He was knocked out and now needs an operation on an eye.
Crow blames 'certain employers' worried about further industrial action on the railways. "I think it was someone giving me a hiding on the day that the ballot papers went out" he told the press.
Although the police originally described the attack as a failed burglary they are now treating it as assault.
Privatisation now means there are thousands of different companies trying to make profits from the railways.
Apparently some of them may be prepared to resort to thuggery to prevent workers having determined left-wing leaders.
The Socialist Party is supporting Bob Crow for general secretary.
In The Socialist 18 January 2002: