Socialist Worker

Blood and money on the tracks

Issue No. 1720

Why we say renationalise the railways

Blood and money on the tracks

By Hassan Mahamdallie

"THE CONDITION of the track was not good". Those eight words from Railtrack, admitting the cause of the Hatfield train disaster, sum up everything that is wrong with Britain's privatised rail industry.

Railtrack is to blame for the deaths and destruction at Hatfield. Yet the rail industry, much of the press, and politicians from the major parties have rallied round Railtrack boss Gerald Corbett. They have all tried to deflect attention away from the central issue-that privatisation is killing people and the railways should be back in public hands. Corbett claimed last week that rail privatisation had been done to fill the Treasury's coffers.

The Tories actually sold off the entire railway cheap, at around �6 billion, to open the service up to the free market. Railtrack's shareholders enjoyed a �69 million windfall just a few months after the 1996 sell-off because its price was so low. Corbett's comment covers up who really benefited from rail privatisation and continue to do so.

They are fat cat businessmen like Brian Souter, millionaire boss of the Stagecoach transport empire. He bought up a large chunk of the rolling stock under the Porterbrook firm. He makes terrific profits from leasing the clapped-out locomotives and coaches to the train operating companies.

Souter's pockets are also stuffed with cash from running South West Trains and having a 49 percent share in Richard Branson's Virgin Trains.

Railtrack knew nine months before the Hatfield crash that the bend where the high speed train came off was a danger. But it calculated that the lost revenue it would incur in fines by closing the line was too much.

Rail users are right to feel they are taking their lives in their hands when they board a train. A shocking 81 sites around the country have weak tracks. This forced Railtrack to impose speed restrictions on Thursday of last week. People will continue to die in train crashes because the profits of the fat cats are being put before safety.

Cowboy contracts

THE TORIES introduced private contractors to do railway maintenance instead of British Rail employees. These companies were out to make a quick buck. Tens of thousands of jobs have been cut since.

A private contractor was responsible for faulty wiring that led to the 1988 Clapham Junction crash, killing 35 people. Railtrack knew that private contractors were a safety risk. In 1996 senior Railtrack managers warned against their use on essential maintenance. An internal report said, "This area of doubt will become an embarrassing issue in the event of a major incident."

Balfour Beatty was responsible for rail maintenance on the east coast main line where the Hatfield crash occurred. Tony Merricks is its director. New Labour has appointed him as chairman of the working group on combating cowboy builders! Balfour Beatty and Jarvis, which are also implicated in the Hatfield scandal, are bidding for contracts on London Underground if John Prescott's privatisation goes through.

Friends in high places

THE MEDIA united to praise Gerald Corbett, whose "offer" of resignation was rejected by his own board. In reality Corbett's job, with �400,000 a year plus bonuses, was never in danger.

Corbett had high profile backing. Socialist Worker has been told that he received three phone calls shortly after last week's crash. Each caller begged Corbett to stay put. One was prime minister Tony Blair. The other was deputy prime minister John Prescott phoning from China. The third was the head of the inquiry into the 1999 Ladbroke Grove disaster, Lord Cullen.

Cullen has been told to investigate the Hatfield crash. Why defend Corbett? Unlike many of the managers who ran British Rail he has no experience in the industry. He is a finance manager whose "skill" is maximising profits for shareholders. His past jobs include high street firm Dixons, building materials firm Redland and Grand Metropolitan Hotels.

Corbett and the rest of the Railtrack board are not "honourable men". They should be charged with murder.

The gravy train

THE GOVERNMENT is wedded to the idea that the free market is the way to run everything. But New Labour used to have a policy of renationalising the rail industry. In 1993 Prescott said of the train operating companies that "they only get a contract for six or seven years, they don't own the stock, they don't own the track.

"All I'll be doing is taking the contracts back. So make no mistake about it. It'll be coming back to a publicly-owned network." But any commitment to renationalisation was written out of New Labour's 1997 general election manifesto.

Since the election John Prescott has abandoned any talk of nationalisation. He is even ploughing ahead with privatisation of London Underground and air traffic control. At the 1998 Labour Party conference Prescott argued against rail renationalisation, saying: "The real question is whether we put �20 billion of government resources into renationalising Railtrack instead of putting resources into schools and hospitals."

This is a dishonest argument. It would be cheaper to run a nationalised rail industry, because millions would not go to shareholders and private firms which hike up their costs to make money. The railways should be renationalised now without any compensation.

The government's annual �2 billion subsidy to the privateers more than covers the original price of the rail sell-off. Prescott could easily refuse to renew the train operating company franchises and use the subsidy they get to run the trains as a public concern. Instead Prescott is EXTENDING the contracts to the private firms for up to 20 years.

The government could throw off all the subcontractors who clearly put profit before safety, and use the money to hire a unified public workforce. After Paddington 73 percent of people said they wanted the rail renationalised. We should do all we can to make sure it happens before the carnage mounts.

Cash for shops not for signals

THE ASSET stripping of the railways, brought on by privatisation, is still going on. The rail regulator had to warn last month that he was thinking of "banning or curbing land sales by Railtrack amid fears that valuable land could be lost forever".

Railtrack had been found trying to sell off prime inner city real estate to generate millions in revenue. Much of the public money put into Railtrack has been diverted away from essential maintenance towards developing main stations into shopping centres. A small fortune has gone into the shopping parade at Paddington station. It includes an oyster bar, record, clothes and food shops, and a lounge for first class ticket holders.

If that money had been spent sorting out the signalling outside Paddington, the 31 people who died in the crash there last year might still be alive. New Labour is showering money on the privatised rail firms. It is giving Railtrack �4 billion of public money to upgrade the London to Glasgow west coast line.

In all, the government wants to pour in �30 billion of public money into the coffers of the privatised rail companies over the next ten years. Supporters of rail privatisation say that the rail regulator keeps the rail privateers in line. Yet last month rail regulator Tom Winsor let Railtrack off �70 million in fines for running a poor service.

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Article information

Sat 28 Oct 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1720
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