The Action for Rail campaign is targeting a European Union measure which, if introduced, would force the rest of Europe to adopt much of the failed fragmentation and privatisation that has plagued Britain – and also stop a future government from renationalising rail...
One of the labour movement’s big successes has been Action for Rail, the TUC’s campaign to fight for a nationally integrated railway under public ownership. Supported by the rail trade unions RMT, ASLEF and TSSA, along with Unite, the campaign helped more and more people see the benefits of reuniting and renationalising Britain’s privatised railways, and stopping the publicly owned East Coast franchise from being re-privatised.
“Privatisation” is perhaps the wrong term. Encouraged by the EU, European publicly owned railway corporations have already established a massive presence in Britain’s rail industry, making profits that are being repatriated to pay for improvements to the transport services and infrastructure in Germany, France and the Netherlands in particular. It is no surprise that these foreign players are lining up to take over East Coast. Instead of making large contributions to the British Treasury, the profits would be siphoned off to benefit the taxpayers of other European countries!
Action for Rail has now recognised the threat posed by the European Union to its aims, and is targeting the EU’s Fourth Rail Package. This measure, if introduced, would not only force the rest of Europe to adopt much of the failed fragmentation and privatisation that has been such a disaster in Britain but would also stop a future British government from reuniting and renationalising the railways.
The TUC and the rail unions lobbied the European Commission on 9 October, recognising that the EU’s proposals to create a Single European Rail Market will entrench privatisation in Britain and will encourage a widespread attack on the jobs and conditions of rail workers and the use of “social dumping” to encourage a race to the bottom for rail workers' conditions.
But transport trade unions are seemingly oblivious to the dead hand of the EU also within the fierce debates about the building of a new high-speed railway in Britain, dubbed “HS2”, and issues associated with that project. And there is an immediate threat posed by the Fourth Rail Package, an obscure document published by the EU in October which should be equally worrying for the future.
What about HS2? There is no doubt that massive investment is necessary to improve and expand Britain’s railway network, with its infrastructure largely built in the 19th century to 19th century standards when steam trains rarely ran faster than 70 miles an hour. Despite rather than because of privatisation, these railways, severely pruned by Beeching in the 1960s, are now carrying more passengers than the much larger network that existed in the 1920s and 1930s when the railways had their last “golden age”.
Not surprisingly, the rail unions support the building of HS2 in principle though there are clearly doubts about the detail. Professor Henry Overman of the London School of Economics and a member of an HS2 analytical challenge panel, set up to provide independent expert scrutiny, said available evidence suggested the scheme was “not particularly good value for money” compared with other transport projects.
“It may well even be poor value for money compared to other alternatives that address exactly the same set of problems,” he said. “The case for improvements on the existing lines is actually pretty good in terms of the benefit-cost ratio, which is the way some of us like to look at these things.”
The key question for Britain’s workers is who is to control this new infrastructure, in whose interests will it be run, and
who is really making the decisions about what enhancements are made to the country’s rail network.
The debate is currently around how HS2 could connect London with the Midlands, the north of England and Scotland, and the economic benefits that may flow from that. But the EU – with British government connivance – is making plans that would bring HS2, along with other key rail routes, motorways, ports and airports, increasingly under direct EU control.
Indeed, it may be the case that should Britain decide not to build HS2, the EU may nevertheless force us to do so. This is a takeover of the control of British transport by the EU on behalf of the state-run German, French and Dutch transport operations like DB that want to run it. (See article in Workers, February 2012.)
As the EU document puts it, “The new EU infrastructure policy will put in place a powerful European transport network across 28 member states to promote growth and competitiveness. It will connect East with West and replace today’s transport patchwork with a network that is genuinely European.” This is Euro-speak for the true aim – to have an EU controlled transport network that will facilitate a free market economy run in the interests of capitalists, not workers. The EU is less concerned about having Britain’s cities connected and more interested in how they can promote the free movement of goods and labour which, like the Fourth Rail Package, will mean social dumping and attacks on the pay and conditions of workers.
Britain needs investment in rail and other infrastructure in order to meet the needs of its people by improving mobility, and allowing the country’s industries to modernise and develop. We cannot allow the EU to prevent Britain’s rail network from being returned to public ownership, or to dictate that enormous sums of British workers’ money are spent on new transport infrastructure designed solely to benefit the EU and the capitalists it exists to serve. And we certainly cannot allow the EU to control Britain’s transport network. ■