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Definitive account of rail disaster

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Issue 1743

Definitive account of rail disaster

By Helen Shooter

VIRGIN TRAINS, owned by Brian Souter and Richard Branson, announced last week it was hiking up train fares by 10 percent. It says it can’t make enough money from passengers on overcrowded, dirty trains who still face delays from the Hatfield rail crash six months ago. Even some rail insiders think privatisation is ludicrous. One senior figure on the railways described visitors from abroad who came to inspect New Labour’s rail watchdog, the Strategic Rail Authority: “The ones from Europe come because they want to discover how not to privatise a railway. The ones from the Third World come to see how it might be done because the IMF has sent them. Poor mugs.”

That quote is in a new book, The Crash That Stopped Britain by Ian Jack. In 90 pages Jack argues that the Hatfield rail disaster last October marked a turning point, and the second half of the book is a devastating attack on privatisation.

That crash, caused when a broken track derailed the train, killed four people. Jack says he believes tributes to them should read, “Killed by stubborn political ideology,” or, “They died in the cause of profit.”

His book pulls together the full disaster of privatisation for the first time. The Tories broke up the rail network in 1994 into a maze of competing companies. One large infrastructure company, Railtrack, would contract out its work to private firms. The chance to make a quick profit was put before rail safety. The number of workers employed on the railways was slashed from 159,000 in 1992 to 92,000 in 1997.

The number permanently employed maintaining and renewing the infrastructure fell from 31,000 to between 15,000 and 19,000. Jack quotes interviews that Guardian journalist Keith Harper did with rail workers in 1998 who were employed by subcontractors to work on the track. One said, “At least 50 percent of the track is on its last legs. If it’s not broken rails it’s broken components. If the public knew the full picture it would be horrified. There are accidents waiting to happen.”

Another worker said, “Railtrack is a joke. It is totally reliant on the maintenance companies and does not know what is going on. It wrings its hands and says that safety is paramount, yet it gets really nasty if we cannot do a job on time, usually because the time we get to do it is impossible.”

This point was made again in November last year at the Cullen inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove crash which killed 31 people. Professor Baldry gave evidence about safety practices based on research he and colleagues had done.

He concluded, “There is a worsening safety record and a worsening trend in employee safety in the railway industry.” Baldry described how competition between different rail subcontractors cut against safety.

“If track workers from Scotland had been sent down to York to work on a bit of track that was unfamiliar to them, they find themselves working with other employees of a different contractor. The local people may have been told by their employer, ‘Don’t talk to these persons because they are employed by the opposition.’ We encountered that in several locations.”

As Jack says, “Six years later it was hard to find anyone who would defend this structure outside the Labour government.”

He quotes Tony Blair in 1995 saying, “As the public learn more and more about the chaos and cost, their anger at this folly will grow.” This is exactly what has happened, yet New Labour refuses to reverse the privatisation.

British Rail was sold for a total of 5 billion. The government subsidy from 1997 to 2000 was roughly 5 billion. This book shows why passengers’ lives will continue to come after profit. Every trade union branch should have one. Everyone campaigning for renationalisation should read it.

  • Crash That Stopped Britain by Ian Jack, 4.99.

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