Railtrack bosses sent the government a blackmail note this week-'Give us £1 billion or the passengers get it.' And New Labour is considering coughing up.
Railtrack's outrageous demand for even higher public subsidies should add urgency to the major campaign for rail renationalisation begun by trade unions last week. The RMT, ASLEF and TSSA rail unions launched the Take Back the Track campaign on Friday, just as 10,000 tube workers in London began balloting for strike action over the threat privatisation poses to safety.
Louise Christian, solicitor for the victims of the Southall and Ladbroke Grove rail disasters, backs the campaign for public ownership. She told Socialist Worker, 'The Hatfield crash happened while the inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove disaster was taking place. And the weeks since then have shown that the private rail companies are incapable of sorting out the network. The inquiries into Southall and Ladbroke Grove were not allowed to discuss the problem of privatisation. But the majority of survivors and the families of those who died know that the railway is not safe in private hands.'
The renationalisation campaign and any strike on the tube can focus a powerful challenge to New Labour's privatisation mania. Everyone should back the tube workers.
'It will take action of the kind we are voting for by the unions to win renationalisation and stop the sell-off of the tube,' one tube driver told Socialist Worker. New Labour is isolated over rail and tube privatisation. It has the support of the rail barons, and leaders of the other mainstream parties back versions of privatisation. But four out of five people want the rail industry back in public hands.
A petition in support of a parliamentary motion tabled by 101 MPs in favour of 'bringing Railtrack into public ownership' is already showing just how great opposition to the rail profiteers is. The rail unions are issuing a further petition for use in the run-up to the widely expected general election in May.
Every day that New Labour leaves the rail industry in money-grabbing hands brings further scandals and threats to safety. Documents obtained by the Guardian this week show that top rail managers were told of the cracked rail at Hatfield a year before the fatal crash there. A manager at the site warned of the danger in November 1999 and recommended that the track should be replaced by May of last year.
Railtrack did nothing. The Hatfield crash happened on 17 October 2000. Now Railtrack is threatening to suspend vital maintenance work, after it said the cost of emergency measures since the crash will be £600 million, twice what it predicted.
Higher fares and public subsidies will meet that cost. Railtrack is lying when it says its shareholders will suffer. Their dividends increased after the Hatfield crash. The Financial Times's share tipsters wrote that week that Railtrack is 'unlike any normal quoted company in the UK' because it 'is always likely, ultimately, to be bailed out'.
That's why its shares dropped just 2.5 percent when it claimed on Monday that it was effectively bankrupt. New Labour has signalled that it is likely to meet Railtrack's demand for £1 billion of subsidy to be paid this year rather than in 2006. One of deputy prime minister John Prescott's officials says, 'If the government is faced with the alternative of letting Railtrack go to the wall, clearly it's going to be sympathetic to rescheduling the grant.'
The government is already pledged to pour £15 billion into Railtrack over the next five years, on top of the billions the company has already received since privatisation. New Labour says it cannot intervene to renationalise rail, or to save jobs at Vauxhall Luton and elsewhere.
But it is stepping in daily to keep the rail industry in private hands, and it wants to privatise the tube. The government has lost the argument against renationalisation. It is now hoping to ride out the storm. The trade unions should not let that happen.
The greater the support for the petitions demanding the renationalisation of the railway, the greater the pressure on the government. And solidarity with tube workers can raise the prospect of concerted action across Britain to force the government to take back the railways.
Shareholders are put before safety
Less than a third of the money Railtrack says it is spending after Hatfield is actually going on repairs. It is spending £180 million on stapling together cracked rails. Over double that, £400 million, is going straight into the pockets of the 25 private companies that run the trains.
A private monopoly is handing public subsidies to another bunch of privateers. One of them is Thames Trains. Last week that company sacked a worker on the same day as he was named for a bravery award for saving a friend in the Ladbroke Grove crash, which involved one of the company's trains. Wayne Levy suffered a broken hip, a gashed throat, and lacerated eyes, nose and hands in the crash, which claimed 31 lives.
But he managed to beat his way through burning diesel to rescue his friend Michael Refferty and help other injured passengers. The Ladbroke Grove crash inquiry applauded his actions. Wayne returned to work at Paddington station last August.
He has taken only six days sick leave since then, despite suffering from post-traumatic stress.
SAFETY NOT PROFIT
No tube privatisation Rally,
Monday 29 January, 7.30pm
Hammersmith Town Hall, King Street, London W6
Speakers include Louise Christian, solicitor for victims of Southall and Ladbroke Grove disasters; Oliver New, president London transport regional council RMT; Chris Rodgers, chair London air traffic control PCS