Over Christmas the railways were in chaos – again. Why does
this sort of thing happen in Britain? It hasn’t always been like this. The
problem started with privatisation. The Tories under John Major plotted a
privatisation so stupid that even Thatcher had thought better of it. They not
only sold off our railway system for a song in 1993. They also separated wheel
and track by creating separate regional train operating companies, and made Railtrack
responsible for track maintenance.
As Ken Loach’s film The
Navigators showed, the first thing these asset strippers did was to break
up the teams of experts who had dedicated their working lives to the railways.
The idea was they could just whistle up this expertise when they actually
needed it. This was always going to be a fantasy.
In 2001 Railtrack was put into administration. It had
already managed in its short life to build up a shortfall of £2 billion on its
five year investment plan. The creation of Network Rail as a not-for-profit replacement
company was actually a shamefaced renationalisation by the Labour government.
They had no choice. Under Railtrack we had seen incompetence lead to fatal
accidents at Paddington and Hatfield. After the Hatfield tragedy the whole
network was put on go-slow. Railtrack was the most hated company in Britain.
Network Rail has one big problem. It doesn’t do the big
projects itself, but puts them out to tender. The firm responsible for the
Rugby refurbishment was Bechtel. The name may ring a bell. They have been busy
in Iraq looting the ‘aid’ pumped in by the US government after the invasion. A
Mosul taxi driver told Naomi Klein after they left, "It is strange how the billions
of dollars spent on electricity brought no improvement whatsoever, but in fact
worsened the situation" (See our review of The
Shock Doctrine ). Strange indeed. Now Bechtel are overpaid and over here.
The Office of Rail Regulators is threatening to fine Network
Rail for the Christmas chaos. This would be pointless and counter-productive.
In the first place Network Rail is effectively publicly owned. If it has to pay
out money in fines, then it can’t keep up the same level of maintenance.
Secondly Network Rail is not the outfit that has screwed up.
It is the private contractors. And the reason they can’t do the job is because
the teams of railway engineers were dispersed under privatisation.
Privatisation has failed utterly. It is time we began to run
the railways as a service to the nation, not as a money-making scam for spivs.
Amtrak Workers: a Looming Strike, Railway Workers Unite! by Shamus Cooke, 20 January 2008