Taking full advantage of the liberalisation of Europe’s international passenger services, Deutsche Bahn is moving into Britain. Armed with massive opportunities to exploit workers across Europe, it’s looking for profits, at the expense of workers…
The German national railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB) is currently positioning itself to take full advantage of the European Union’s decree that international passenger services would be “liberalised” from the beginning of this year. It has already begun to move into Britain.
This liberalisation of international passenger services will bring about huge changes. The publicly owned national rail companies across Europe have long co-operated with each other in running international trains. It was only in 2007 that many of the companies joined together in an organisation called “Railteam”, to facilitate through- and inter-available tickets, as well as better connections.
This is likely to wither rapidly as international trains from one operator run in competition with another. At present, on most international journeys you can buy a ticket and use it on any operator’s trains on that route. In the brave new world now coming into being, you almost certainly won’t – it would be like trying to use an Easyjet air ticket on Ryanair!
This is the latest phase of the implementation of the EU’s policy to open up the railways of Europe to privatisation and competition that began in the days when the EU was still the EEC, with a directive enacted in 1991. It was this directive that was enthusiastically seized upon by the Tory government as the blueprint to break up and privatise British Rail in the 1990s.
The EU has already liberalised European rail freight back in 2003. As a result, DB in particular has aggressively either taken over or set up operations in 11 other countries. For example, it has taken over the entire Netherlands Railways freight operation, NS Cargo. It is clearly thinking big, and has recently begun to operate through freight services from China to Europe via Russia in competition with deep sea shipping.
DB last year took over Britain’s largest freight operator EWS which is being rebranded to reflect the new ownership, trains now appearing in the same DB colours as those to be found in Germany. Its freight trains travel regularly between Britain and continental Europe through the Channel Tunnel.
The burgeoning DB empire has resulted in the rail unions across Europe establishing a coordinating body to deal more effectively with the problems that have arisen. Already, DB is clearly seeking to undermine the pay, terms and conditions of “mobile” train staff such as train drivers by using the cheapest labour to work cross-border services. Its policies and actions in its new found territories are very familiar to observers of the private rail companies in Britain. Its cheap operation in France is undercutting French national operator SNCF, resulting in cuts and job losses.
DB has also bought Chiltern Trains, which runs passenger train services from London to Birmingham, along with a small ‘open access’ operator which runs a few trains between London and Wrexham. It also owns 50 per cent of the company that operates the London Overground services on behalf of Transport for London, the owners of London Underground. This expanding network of passenger services, which at present serves Euston, Watford, Richmond, Clapham Junction and Stratford, will shortly extend its reach via a re-opened East London line to Croydon. DB has a nice little earner here, paid for by Londoners.
|Out with the old: the former English, Welsh and Scottish Railway is being rebranded as DB Schenker.|
DB’s latest conquest is the Tyne & Wear metro, currently publicly owned, which the RMT and other trade unions have fought a hard campaign to retain in the public sector. It will operate the metro for between seven and nine years, and will receive more than £300 million from the government in capital funding, plus a long term operating subsidy. Doubtless the people of Newcastle, Gateshead and the surrounding area will be paying through the nose to fund DB’s future profits.
Many industry observers believe that the next target for DB will be the East Coast main line franchise, recently removed from National Express, but up for grabs in the next two years. DB has recently sought to buy the British arm of international passenger operator Eurostar, which is currently an operation shared with the French and Belgian national rail companies. Whilst they were unsuccessful, DB has made it plain that they want to operate services to London via the Channel Tunnel.
State-owned, but not for long
DB itself is still nominally a company owned by the German state, but those in charge are planning for the company’s imminent post-privatisation future. The EU’s liberalisation of the railways is providing the company with massive opportunities to exploit workers across Europe, in much the same way that Britain’s bus companies were able to exploit the opportunities provided by rail privatisation here over a decade ago. The difference now is that DB dwarfs the likes of Britain’s Stagecoach, First Group and National Express. Will one of these minnows be gobbled up next?
DB’s freight traffic has slumped by a quarter as a result of the current economic crisis, and it has announced 3,900 job losses across Europe, including a 25 per cent cut in staff in the Netherlands, with as many as 7,000 possible by next year. Its British arm EWS has already seen large scale job losses during 2009. It seems that it is a lack of investment cash and increasing competition from SNCF, itself expanding into other countries by exploiting EU liberalisation, that is holding it back. The losers in this rush to privatisation and competition are the workers.
Many railway workers, and even more rail users, are oblivious to the growing German presence in Britain’s railways, and even more don’t appreciate the role played by the EU in bringing this about. RMT to its credit has clearly identified the threat to the railways and rail workers posed by the EU, and has been at the forefront of the trade union movement in opposing it.
Rail unions must break the conspiracy of silence and make sure that their members are told the truth about what the EU stands for, both for the railways and for workers in general. What is needed is real internationalism, with unions working together across Europe in the interests of the workers. Joining together to oppose the expansionist DB, which is by far the biggest rail company in Europe, will be an important first step.