Socialist Worker

Another railway disaster in making

Issue No. 1781

THE RAIL network stands on the brink of yet another fatal disaster, despite reassurances from rail bosses and the government following the Hatfield crash in November 1999. The entire system is in an even worse state than it was before that crash. That is the conclusion of one of the few top managers at Railtrack who has any great experience of the industry.

John Curley is manager of Railtrack's Great Western zone, and has worked in the industry for 25 years. He released devastating figures last week showing that basic repairs to track are not being done because of the 'fragmented structure' caused by rail privatisation, and because of 'cost issues'.

It is the closest anyone in Railtrack, which collapsed in October of last year, has come to admitting that the drive for profit has hit safety. His revelations came as New Labour's own private polls recorded huge and increasing public discontent with the crumbling transport system, particularly with the railways. Curley warned that:

  • About 10 percent of track, sleepers and signals are 'at or beyond their physical life'. They should have been replaced years ago.
  • A further 30 percent will be worn out in the next five years. There is no guarantee that the money is there to replace them.
  • He went on to say that Railtrack has 'not done a lot of day to day maintenance and renewal work that should have been done' since privatisation in 1996. An internal report for Railtrack by engineering consultants Ove Arup confirmed last weekend that badly maintained track and old rolling stock added up to another disaster in the making. The deputy chief inspector of railways, Bob Smallwood, said in a private memo that the consultants' report was a 'damning indictment of railway maintenance procedures, practices and the management of it'. He spoke of a 'systematic failure' of maintenance

    The warnings could not be clearer. The government's response could scarcely be more criminal. Much of Tony Blair's new year message was taken up with the growing transport crisis. He said, 'There remains huge frustration at some of our public services, particularly railways.

    'I am not going to pretend we can put our transport system right quickly.' The reason for moving slowly is that New Labour still refuses to reverse the cause of the rail crisis-privatisation. New Labour decided in 1997 to rule out renationalising the rail as too expensive.

    But since then twice as much money has been handed over in subsidies to the rail privateers as it would have cost to buy them out.

    Another is that the railways are in a worse state than when New Labour came to office, as even transport secretary Stephen Byers now admits. Even the collapse of Railtrack last October has not led the government to break with its obsession of giving businessmen control of public services. Byers stepped in to put Railtrack into administration, a procedure for bankrupt companies.

    He did not renationalise it, but proposed setting up another private company to replace it. Rail expert Christian Wolmar wrote at the time, 'Railtrack will become a private company with no shareholders, and profits will be reinvested. 'But in order to keep the railways out of Gordon Brown's precious public sector borrowing requirement, the government will not be able to appoint its directors or excercise day to day control.

    'Rationally, the government should have just renationalised Railtrack. However, that would have been politically unpalatable given the government's penchant for the private sector.' Now various companies are circling around in the hope of taking over Railtrack. The frontrunner is German bank WestLB. It is planning large salary rises for the fat cats brought in to replace Railtrack's board.

    Byers says the replacement for Railtrack would have to plough profits back into the railways, but that would be after huge fat cat payouts. And the money will come from higher public subsidies and fares. WestLB claimed just before Christmas that it would need an extra £6.8 billion over the next five years to carry out maintenance and track improvements promised by Railtrack. That is double what Railtrack asked for last year.

    The latest great train robbery

    RAILTRACK WAS not the only profit-grabbing company produced by rail privatisation. The rolling stock and services are in the hands of the train operating companies.

    These have been left untouched by Byers' response to the collapse of Railtrack. The train operating companies continue to rake in profits. Yet they are contributing to the safety crisis that threatens another disaster. The Ove Arup engineering consultants were brought in after the Hatfield crash to investigate 'gauge corner cracking' of rails, which was responsible for it. They discovered that such faults account for only a fifth of track problems. Many are caused by worn out wheels (on old trains) running on poorly maintained track.

    The train operating companies have shunted all the blame onto Railtrack and have received compensation for delays. Yet their refusal to invest has contributed to those delays, which are now as bad as they were last spring.

    That did not stop the train operating companies announcing fare increases of up to 17 percent just before Christmas. One of the biggest operators, Connex South Eastern, plans to cram 1,000 passengers onto four-carriage trains by removing the toilets and forcing most people to stand on its commuter services.

    The plan is being considered by the Strategic Rail Authority, the body New Labour set up claiming it would end the chaos of competing rail companies. Merger The authority's plan to overcome fragmentation is to speed through the merger of train operating companies into bigger companies which will then have a monopoly over routes.

    That will put them in a stronger position to hike fares. Only 40 percent of fares are regulated. The great myth of rail privatisation was that competition would lead to efficiency and lower fares. It has produced private monopolies with a licence to print money.

    10 year failure

    THE government's own transport watchdog has warned that it has to spend more on public transport. Professor David Begg, chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, says New Labour's ten-year transport plan will fail unless it takes more radical action to improve public transport.

    But New Labour is not taking on the oil companies, car manufacturers and construction companies which thrive on congestion and road building. The Department of Transport has just appointed a 'car champion' to ensure that those big business interests are reflected in all areas of transport policy.

    Drivers strike back

    TRAIN DRIVERS working for ScotRail began an unofficial overtime ban last week over pay.

    The 750 drivers are fighting for an increase to bring them in line with those on other routes. ScotRail drivers are on £23,000 a year, way below average drivers' pay across Britain. They have been forced to make up their pay by working rest days. A demand for the going rate of pay increases also lies behind strikes by non train crew staff in the RMT union on South West Trains. The strikes were due to take place on Thursday and Friday of this week and Monday and Tuesday of next.

    RMT members on South West Trains were also set to strike next Tuesday over disciplinary action taken against union activist and Socialist Alliance election candidate Greg Tucker. Drivers in the ASLEF union on Eurostar were also due to strike on Friday and Sunday over pay. More strikes are planned for next week and the rest of January.

    Money grabber's payout

    ONE OF the top fat cat bosses sacked from Railtrack last year is still drawing his £1,000 a day salary. Jonson Cox was the chief operating officer at Railtrack. He worked there for just 11 months before he was sacked last summer. But he struck a deal with fellow directors.

    Under the shoddy agreement Cox is entitled to £300,000 a year. As if this wasn't enough, he also pockets pension payments for another 13 months or until he finds a new job.

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    Article information

    Sat 5 Jan 2002, 00:00 GMT
    Issue No. 1781
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