David Hare’s latest work is not a play in any conventional sense, rather a dramatised documentary that subjects privatisation of the railways to a rigorous and devastating critique. We are presented with a mosaic of individual testimonies from 25 characters – both those responsible for running the privatised network and those at the sharp end of its failures. We hear several groups of voices: the remorse of those who initiated the demented, give-away sale but then realised it was unworkable; the complacent tones of a senior Treasury official and an investment banker who made millions from it; a leading entrepreneur (Richard Branson blithely announcing a more ‘customer-oriented’ railway); senior rail executives and contractors who employ unskilled labourers in skilled maintenance work and hope their families won’t be on the train when the chickens come home to roost; and the hypocritical voices of puffed-up politicians too cowardly to reverse the disaster through renationalisation – John (‘This must never be allowed to happen again’) Prescott.
On the other side, we hear the largely unheard voices, the despairing words of engineers whose skills, experience and high standards have been shoved aside to make way for a fast buck, for shareholders’ dividends and asset-stripping. Finally, we hear the angry voices of the survivors and the bereaved of the four crashes since Blair took office in 1997, and the voices of those who campaign on their behalf.
Hare, together with members of the cast, interviewed dozens of people involved with the railways (described by insiders as ‘the permanent way’) at all levels, including survivors and bereaved. Their statements are reproduced verbatim, but Hare has skilfully edited the transcripts to create characters with real life to them, who rise above mere cardboard cutouts and ensure that this is not propaganda but compelling political theatre. They remind us that under nationalisation the Treasury always refused to subsidise the railways but since privatisation they are funded more generously than ever. As for safety, it is simply not a priority for a privately owned railway.
It is hard to believe that John Major’s government was allowed to get away with splitting up the railway system into 113 parts. The play emphasises that it was this fragmentation, and in particular the notorious separation of track from wheel, and of operation from maintenance, that resulted in so much death and injury.
The Permanent Way, however, is more than a critique of railway privatisation. It is a metaphor for what Britain has become – a run-down society in which chronic underinvestment in social infrastructure over decades has resulted in a country where nothing works properly, with a culture in which the cunning and manipulative ‘skills’ of managers and accountants are more valued than the expertise and commitment of public sector employees, in which buck-passing has replaced accountability and in which market-speak rules, so that wherever you look, ‘customers’ have replaced ‘passengers’. In sum, the play adopts rail privatisation as a symbol of the cultural, moral and political degeneration of British politics in general and of New Labour in particular.
A quietly evocative film
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