The government’s decision to go to Germany for the carriages for the new Thameslink trains manufacture puts our own industry in jeopardy…
Britain’s last train manufacturing plant, owned by Canadian-based Bombardier in Derby, is threatened by the government's decision to give “preferred bidder” status to Siemens in Germany for the contract to supply 1200 new train carriages for London’s Thameslink commuter route, which crosses the city from north to south. The order is worth £1 billion.
On 23 July, over 10,000 trade unionists and their families marched through Derby in support of the campaign to save Britain’s last train factory, with the possible loss of 3,000 jobs. They were cheered enthusiastically by shoppers and bystanders, indicating the huge support for the campaign in the city. Unite, RMT, TSSA and GMB members at the plant were supported by other unions and trades councils who recognise the importance of this fightto Derby and to the whole country.
At the rally at the end of the demonstration, trade union general secretaries and Labour MPs queued up to profess condemnation of the government. The Tory leader of Derby City Council, and the Bombardier Chairman joined them on the platform, calling upon the government to review its decision. Liberal Democrats were out in force on the demonstration, concerned to protect their political futures by being seen to oppose a massive loss of jobs in Derby. In government, LibDems have a poor record of supporting British industry (remember Sheffield Forgemasters?), like Labour before them.
Still, the degree of unanimity across the political spectrum in support of the campaign to save the Derby plant has rarely been seen. Tory-controlled Derby City Council has been unanimous in expressing support, mindful that up to 12,000 jobs associated with the factory such as those in the supply chain, many in Derby, are under threat. The Derby Rail Forum, representing the many rail employers based in Derby, has also been at the forefront of the campaign.
The cost to the taxpayer
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has so far dismissed this opposition to his decision. When challenged by the trade unions at a recent meeting, he admitted that in considering the bids, it did not factor in to the calculations the costs to the British taxpayer of the redundancies at Derby that would result, nor did it consider the long-term future of British train manufacturing. The wider economic impact of their decision on Derby and the British economy was ignored.
23 July: over 10,000 trade unionists and their families marched through Derby.
This government has blamed the previous government for tying Andrew hands, a claim dismissed by Hammond’s predecessor, Lord Adonis. Hammond has sought to hide behind European Union procurement law, knowing full well that the French government ensures that French trains are built in France, and that Germany sees to it that their trains are built in Germany! If they can do it, why can’t the British? As RMT general secretary Bob Crow put it, “They look after their manufacturing workers, so our government should look after ours”.
Hammond is dismissive of the threat posed to the world-leading railway technical expertise to be found in a myriad of companies clustered in Derby that are to a large extent dependent on the Bombardier plant. The closure of the plant may well result in this expertise being dissipated across Europe as these companies move to countries where trains are being built.
The government has not looked at the technical merits of the rival bids either. The Siemens bid seeks to use unproven technology, while Bombardier’s bid is based upon tried and tested designs. Bombardier’s trains would be lighter and more energy efficient, and the order would have allowed the Derby plant to be a world leader in aluminium extrusion techniques for train manufacture.
The government has said several times since coming to power that it wants to rebalance the economy away from reliance on finance and towards manufacturing. Yet given a chance to secure the future of the manufacture of rail vehicles in Britain – trains and trams – Hammond, almost certainly with the backing of Cameron, has chosen not to do so.
Bombardier is currently completing a few small new train orders, and soon will have no work. Unsurprisingly, it has announced that the company proposes to make redundant 446 permanent staff; 983 agency workers will also be laid off. The company has also stated that it will conduct a review of its UK operations to be completed shortly, and has clearly indicated that total closure is now possible.
The unions have also expressed real concerns about other Bombardier maintenance, repair and testing plants across the country, including the one at Crewe. Failure to win the Thameslink contract will mean that these plants will suffer potential job losses as work that would follow from the building of the trains at Derby will not materialise.
The real scandal is the fact that Bombardier’s Derby plant was reliant on this one contract to secure its future. Privatisation of Britain’s railways has created a huge amount of uncertainty in train manufacturing, with alternating periods of feast and famine reflecting the lack of central planning. Train manufacturing requires a steady flow of orders to ensure stability, and to ensure job security and retention of highly skilled engineering staff. It is for this reason – lack of planning and flow of orders – that Britain has but one rail vehicle manufacturing plant left.
Despite the economic crisis, Britain’s railways are booming, with passenger numbers being at levels not seen since the 1920s. Current trends will soon mean passenger numbers at their highest levels ever, as more people abandon their cars in the face of increasing fuel costs and traffic congestion on the roads.
Many trains across the country, not just in London and not just commuter trains, are packed. The trains that are running are in many cases over 25 years old, and many are completely unsuitable for the routes they run on. Britain’s railways now compare very unfavourably with those in most of Europe. The answer is investment.
New lines like Thameslink, Crossrail, and HS2 (the high speed line from London to the midlands and the north) are desperately needed, though these take many years to build. Even more urgent is the need for new modern trains that could be running in a relatively short timescale.
Given this, the future of Bombardier’s factory should be secure. It is not – because the government is intent on attacking the nation’s skill base and organised labour, choosing to end manufacture of trains in Britain.
The Transport Select Committee meets on 7 September to discuss the Bombardier situation, and the opportunity will be taken to lobby them and other MPs. A train is being provided free by Derby-based East Midlands Trains to take workers to London, a sign of the support throughout Derby and the railway community.
This autumn, the TUC congress and the party conferences will all see lobbies and demonstrations. On 25 October, a major lobby of Parliament and rally is planned.
The workers at Bombardier and their supporters are intent on keeping up the pressure on Hammond, knowing that the contract with Siemens has not been signed, and the government can still be made to change its mind. The contract will not be finalised until December.
This fight for manufacturing is one which is supported by engineering workers across the country. It is a struggle that must be won for the future of Britain. ■