Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/179/7963
Profit puts safety last
ON 17 October, a GNER King's Cross to Leeds Express crashed near Hatfield, killing four people. Once again railway safety has become headline news.
After engineers inspected the crash site, Railtrack are investigating a broken rail. They admit that they'd known about the condition of that stretch of track since January.
The old nationalised British Rail used to replace worn-out track and signalling equipment after a set time, regardless of wear and tear. Privatised Railtrack only replaces equipment when the bosses deem it necessary.
The number of broken rails increased from 750 in 1995 to 973 in 1998 and 937 last year. Even the rail regulator ordered an independent inquiry in August because Railtrack hadn't met their own targets for cutting down the number of broken rails.
Since Railtrack took over the network the number of track maintenance workers has gone down from 21,000 to 15,506, many of whom work for subcontracting firms.
The contractors blame Railtrack for cutting their profit margins but the privatised system encourages this competitive cost-cutting even if it repeatedly leads to accidents.
The rail industry's "safety last" culture is seen in many ways, not least in the failure to install Automatic Train Protection (ATP) which would stop high speed trains from passing red signals, as happened at Paddington.
ATP has been rejected on cost-benefit lines - it would cut into company profits. So we got the half-baked Train Protection Warning System (TPWS), which doesn't match European safety standards.
The privatised train companies have also demanded more intensive working from their drivers, putting up the maximum length of shifts from nine to eleven hours. This also affects safety standards.
Given the danger posed to rail workers by the privatised companies' penny-pinching on safety, the rail trade unions in particular should be discussing how to fight for improved safety standards. That should include strike action if necessary,
If the bosses threaten the unions with injunctions and legal damages, the unions should call a one-day strike of all railworkers as a warning shot to the bosses. Such a strike would gain massive support after the crash at Hatfield has shown up the bosses' contempt for both workers' and passengers' safety.
Put the bosses in the Dock
RAILTRACK'S CHIEF executive Gerald Corbett and the rest of his board should be in the dock, accused of corporate manslaughter.
Corbett offered to resign over the crash but that was a public relations gimmick. Top politicians rushed to defend him. Both the Tories who sold off the railways and Labour, who didn't renationalise it, have kept very quiet about the cause of the disaster.
Government ministers, past and present, have based their rail strategy on private ownership. They should also be in the dock over this crash.
We should fight to renationalise the privatised companies under workers' control and management, not under the thumb of capitalist ministers who caused the crisis in the first place.
Corbett attacked the privatisation system in a TV interview after the crash. "The railway was ripped apart at privatisation," he said. "The structure put in its place was not designed to optimise safety, investment or cope with the huge increase in the number of passengers."
This is an amazing statement from one of the bosses who has benefited most from privatisation. But we have heard similar apologies and excuses from Corbett and the rail bosses before but we never get any action.
Corbett blames the problems on 'a system designed to maximise the proceeds to the Treasury." That's rich. Certainly the Tory government wanted to get immediate cash from privatisation. But the present fat cat owners got the whole lot at a knock-down price of £5.3 billion on privatisation.
Since then, these firms have had huge subsidies from the Treasury, and have gained swollen profits and immense salaries courtesy of rail workers and passengers.
Nationalise the Railways
THE TORY government privatised the rail system in 1995, and made these fragmented, privatised companies' top managers rich. Meanwhile fares soared up and services deteriorated sharply.
The government has piled around £1 billion a year into subsidising the system. This shows up the contradiction of running a public service for private profit. You can't give company directors and shareholders massive profits and provide a safe, well-run public service with low fares.
After last year's Paddington disaster, there was pressure on Prescott to renationalise rail but Labour rejected it because it would cost £6.5 billion "which would be better spent on other public services".
But now Prescott's ten-year plan talks of ploughing £65 billion, mainly taxpayers' money, over the next ten years into a privatised rail system which he cannot control!
And why should Labour pay that much to buy back an industry which was practically given away? The bosses have made millions out of some 100 competing franchises, why should they be offered compensation? In 1971 Heath's Tory government nationalised Rolls Royce for £1 to stop it from collapsing.
What do people like Corbett know about the rail industry? He used to be finance director for food and drink firm Grand Metropolitan! His prime responsibility is to boost profits. But why should rail workers and passengers carry on paying for this privatised system?
The Tories starved the railways of funds before 1995 to make the rail service look like it desperately needed privatisation.
Now £1.3 billion of our money is going in subsidising the Train Operating Companies' profits. The government has increased these subsidies, ignoring their poor record on reliability and punctuality. Who gains? Railtrack push up their charges for access to the track. The companies hike up their profits, and boost their managers' and directors' inflated salaries.
Railtrack also expects to get some £4 billion to help it modernise the London to Glasgow West Coast line. If the rail industry was renationalised, that money could be reinvested directly to make the service safer and better.
An industry based on the profit motive has lowered safety standards and constantly worsened the service. The trade unions should campaign for strike action against a rail system, which puts rail workers', and passengers' lives at risk.
We don't need a return to the days of British Rail. We fight for public ownership and democratic control by workers and passengers. That would put the needs of the travelling public and workforce first, not the private companies' profits.
That publicly owned service would use the skills and knowledge of rail workers who understand their industry - they certainly know more than that superannuated gin salesman Gerald Corbett.
The industry should be under the democratic control and management of elected representatives of rail workers and the public who use the service. The service would then be geared to meet people's needs not private profit.
Rail Workers View: The Engineer
THE DANGER in any investigation of the Hatfield crash is that the last person to test the failed component will get the blame. Railtrack and the private rail operators won't want to discuss how much the profit motive has compromised the traditional safety culture on the track and in the railway depots.
By an engineer
As a professional engineer involved with testing safety-critical railway components, including rails, for over 25 years, I see the demoralisation of testing personnel as their jobs are downgraded or put out to contractors in order to save money.
Of course, contractors are supposed to carry out safety-critical work to the same Railway Group Standards as the permanent staff they displace. Indeed they need to hold certification proving their competence to carry out this work.
However, in practice many contractors are newly trained, in some cases being put though cut-down courses, and don't have the practical background experience in either railway engineering practice or the tests they're expected to perform.
In addition, lack of expertise amongst both contracting and private railway companies means that there's little or no surveillance and supervision of their work.
After the Ladbroke Grove crash there was a widespread demand for the Safety and Standards Directorate to be separated from Railtrack. This is necessary but it isn't enough.
It's not uncommon for the Safety and Standards Directorate to issue notices allowing the train operating companies and their contractors to ignore inconvenient provisions in the Railway Group Standards.
Rail safety demands the end of the cosy relationships between the Safety and Standards Directorate and private companies. There should be a massive increase in investment in training for new and established personnel, including real apprenceships for young people.
The railway system should return to public ownership, with democratic workers' control and management, to remove the profit motive from safety-critical engineering and testing.
The Socialist Says
Bring privatised rail bosses to justice for neglecting safety in their drive for profit.
Seize the bosses' profits and reclaim all public subsidies.
Renationalise rail and transport under democratic working-class control and management.
A massive programme of investment now to improve safety and service provision.
In The Socialist 27 October 2000: