As European railways are broken up under EU diktat and parcelled out to greedy privateers, in Britain there are faint signs that the reverse is beginning to happen…
On 14 November the National Express East Coast Main Line, successor to the failed GNER, was taken back into public ownership – not through any conviction on the part of government, but under pressure from exploited rail users and the dogged campaigning action of rail unions. According to polls, this was supported by over 70 per cent of the public.
This does not signify that the government has belatedly discovered a unified rail strategy for Britain. Even with privatisation collapsing around its ears, it is as compliant as ever to its EU masters, and is looking to engage another private operator in 18 months time. But a window of opportunity has opened up for unions to step up their campaign for the whole of British rail to be run as a public service again.
National Express East Anglia’s contract will now be terminated in 2011 (after the date set for full liberalisation of passenger services). There is also pressure for its sister company C2C to be recalled, and for the London Midland franchise to be taken back from its parent Govia group after continuing poor performance.
London Midland has been put under the special measures of a Remedial Notice for “exceeding the franchise agreement threshold on cancellations”. The company cancelled 7,558 services in 2008/2009, the second worst performance on the network after Southern. Its public subsidy had cost £114.2 million. In an effort to make railway staff pay for their crisis, London Midland is also involved in two long-standing separate disputes over pay and Sunday working (excluding conductors and drivers).
Contrary to agreements across the rest of the rail network, Southern Railway similarly refused any extra payments or additional leave for working on bank holiday Monday 28 December, provoking another strike ballot.
Rail infrastructure and maintenance is also under attack from multi-billion pound cuts, with 1,500 posts under threat. The implications of that for public safety are obvious following a succession of major incidents from the King’s Cross fire onwards.
Despite assurances that there were no plans for compulsory job losses, Network Rail Chief Executive Iain Coucher is quoted in the minutes of a Transport Select Committee as saying: “…if we want to reduce the running of the railway, which we do, we will have to let people go…There are parts of the country where [minimising compulsory redundancy] simply will not be possible.” As the RMT points out, he and his fellow directors will not, however, be averse to “paying out wads of cash to enjoy the opulence of the Langham Hotel” in London while they plan their cuts.
Targetting the North West
Nearly half of potentially life-threatening cuts are targeted at the West Coast Main Line (WCML) route, which was directly affected by the November floods in Cumbria. Maintenance crews battled alongside emergency services for long hours in atrocious conditions to keep trains running and unblock lines after landslips. Operated by Virgin Trains, this is the busiest rail corridor in Britain, with a history of management failure, as indicated by the Grayrigg disaster.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: “The flooding in the North West and across other parts of the country has reinforced the importance of having a fully-crewed rail maintenance team able to respond to peaks of demand and run by people who understand engineering and not by bureaucrats and accountants shuffling numbers on balance sheets”.
WCML has been plagued with problems since a botched £9 billion upgrade, which left sections of old cable spliced into new. The union states: “Repeated infrastructure failures have required additional input from maintenance crews on a regular basis…Network Rail was fined £14 million for engineering overruns at Rugby over the Christmas and New Year period 2007/2008”. There have been repeated rows over who is responsible for poor service delivery with Virgin Trains. WCML is forecast to be running at full capacity by the end of the next decade, increasing the maintenance demand on the route.
Altogether, planned maintenance cuts by Network Rail have put over 2500 – nearly 20 per cent of the total workforce – at risk. RMT is compiling a dossier of where the cuts are hitting maintenance works along with an assessment of the safety risks. All maintenance members can contact a confidential email address where they can feed through local details of the impact of the cuts on track, signalling and overhead lines throughout Britain.
Contrasting the cuts with the billions spent on bailing out the banks, Bob Crow said: “While the politicians are talking about future cuts they are already a reality on railway lines up and down the country and we are determined to ensure that both staff and the travelling public know exactly what impact they will have”.
Labour is not the answer
The conclusion we must reach from all of this is that the Labour government cannot be trusted with the concerns of British transport workers, or any other group trying to forge a direction for Britain. They persistently ignore the lessons of rail safety. They are indifferent to a transport or industrial strategy for this country. They refuse to transform the banking system into a source of investment in British industry.
Britain has in fact ceased to be their country, since they endorse a foreign constitution, which substitutes a foreign court for trade unions and other national policy-making bodies. If the definition of traitor is one who works against their country’s interest, then that is what they are and they don’t deserve our vote. Through our transport unions we can run transport in Britain ourselves, in our own class interest, not that of global capitalism. Let them learn that one lesson at least.
London: private path leads to fall in safety levels
On London Underground too, where the failure of private company Metronet resulted in the loss of its franchise to Tube Lines, safety standards are being slashed to dangerous levels, and unions want Transport for London (TfL), which faces a £5 billion deficit, to pull the plug on privatisation. Mayor Boris Johnson promised that passengers and front-line services would not be affected by the financial turmoil – caused partly by overruns on the Jubilee Line upgrade, but largely as a result of political failure. But Tube Lines has applied to be released from the agreed safety procedures laid out for the whole of the Underground.
In addition to cutting back track patrols, the company is driving through a reduction in the twice-weekly inspection of escalators to just once a week and the 12-week frequency of signal maintenance on the Jubilee Line to a 16-week cycle. Londoners do not forget that one of the causes of the King’s Cross fire was a lack of regular escalator inspections.
Tube cleaners fighting for the London Living Wage demonstrated against privatisation on 18 November, as it emerged that senior TfL management received a 50 per cent increase in bonuses from £3.6 million in 2007 to £5.3 million in 2009. The cleaners’ union RMT is calling for all tube cleaning services to be brought in-house and for these workers, who do the dirtiest jobs, to receive decent pay. They also point out commuters on Southern rail face travelling in filthy trains as the private company Advance is slashing cleaning staff levels.
The tube cleaners’ action follows a rock-solid 48-hour strike in September, failed arbitration at ACAS, then a successful series of 24-hour strikes in October and November against redundancies and for a living wage by a multi-ethnic group of British Eurostar cleaners employed by Carlisle Group at St Pancras International terminal. Carlisle was denying them sick pay and pensions, there was intimidation and racist overtones, which Frank Dobson MP described as “more akin to the Victorian age”. They received 3000 emails from 75 countries in support.
Eurostar meanwhile had declared “transnational privatisation”, whereby the state picks up the historic debt of the enterprise (e.g. Eurotunnel), while private companies, publicly subsidised, fail to invest for the public good yet reap the profits. What does that remind us of?
Also bad news for Londoners – Tube fares are due to increase above inflation by 3.9 per cent from 2010 and bus fares by over 12 per cent – another example of the working class being made to pay for the recession.
Station renewals, which were to have been completed by Metronet, including work to upgrade one of the Tube's busiest stations – Victoria – will not now be completed until 2018, step-free access has been scrapped, and there will be bus and tube service reductions.