Hatfield: arguments for public ownership of rail
The Crash That Stopped Britain - By IAN JACK
Granta Publications (2001):
"No other railway accident in British history - or, I would guess, in any other country's history has led to the degree of public anger, managerial panic, political confusion, blame and counter-blame that came in the wake of the Hatfield crash. In fact, outside wars and nuclear accidents, it is hard to think of any technological failure which has had such lasting and widespread effects."
Ian Jack's short excoriation of the disastrous policy of railway privatisation pursued by both Tory and Labour governments since 1990 was written following the Hatfield train crash in 2000, serialised in the Guardian and published in full by Granta in a pocket-book format handy for rail passengers. Although given his conclusions it may not be available at too many station bookshops.
The train crash at Hatfield on 17 October 2000 killed four people. Railtrack's press leaks initially sought to put the blame on human error (the Driver was held overnight for questioning by police) or vandalism (for which there was no evidence). Within 24 hours the broken rail emerged as the cause of the high-speed derailment. The media have concentrated on the assassin who pulled the trigger. But who assembled the armies of corporate lawyers and city accountants who had "sweated the assets" of the railway industry for the previous ten years? In Jack's words; "if rail and cracks were Gavrilo Princip and his pistol, who was the Kaiser in the case?"
The answer to that question takes up the bulk of this interesting and thorough investigation. During his research into the principles of engineering and metallurgy, the economic history of railways and into the privatisation junkies of the Thatcher/Major and now Blair administrations, Jack demolishes a number of myths that often permeate discussions about rail privatisation.
Myth number one: that capitalist efficiency can deliver 'social goods', such as public transport safely, or at all. Jack quotes Professor Baldry's evidence to the Ladbroke Grove Inquiry on the effect on the railway industry of 'work intensification': "If you are bidding for a contract on what is essentially a labour-intensive process, the only way or one of the major ways you are more likely to win the contract is through offering to do it with reduced labour costs, that is either to do the work with a smaller number of people or in a shorter timeframe."
Second myth: that there was ever such a thing as a 'golden age' of private railways in inter-war Britain. The average return on railway shares between 1850 and 1875 was 3.65% and it fell thereafter. Nationalisation was actively considered during the First World War when the British State intervened in running the railways, but by 1923 had been dropped in favour of grouping the 120 or so private companies into 4 regional monopolies. The LNER paid out no shareholder dividends at all in the years before the Second World War and in 1946 managed only 0.41%. Nationalisation when it eventually came in 1948 was a blessed relief for the shareholders and owners of unprofitable railway companies and a massive disappointment for the workers who had argued for nationalisation under workers' control.
The myth of 'Golden Ageism' grew up after the Second World War as a reaction to the level of public subsidy needed as a consequence of historical investment starvation by the former private owners. It also reflected a nostalgic hankering by reactionary politicians for the days when porters tipped their hats, the working class knew its proper place and the British Empire's writ still ran India.
'Golden Ageism' was the myth that Tory leader, John Major appealed to when he cast around in his 1992 General Election manifesto for a privatisation policy to convince the zealots of Thatcherism that despite his central role in her downfall, he remained the true son and heir of her economic policies. British Rail was to be the bone he threw to the rabid dogs of the Tory party's right wing in a futile attempt to distract them from splitting the party over European monetary union.
Where Jack's analysis falls short is in explaining correctly the real reasons why railways were privatised in Britain and why the private ownership model continues resolutely to be New Labour's. It is now said by politicians and businessmen from John Prescott and Lord MacDonald to Chief Executives of rail companies, that; "if we could do it again, we'd do it differently." But, as Labour's policy for Tube privatisation shows, they have done it again and they did it exactly the same way.
The invention of Network Rail in 2002 as a 'Company Limited by Guarantee' of course constituted a departure by New Labour from the privatisation model bequeathed by the Tories, but only in the sense that the previous model (Railtrack Plc) repeatedly demonstrated it was unable to function without constant and ever-increasing injections of state aid. This is problematic for all sorts of reasons - not the least of which, the deflationary 'Maastricht Convergence Criteria', that require all European Union member states to consistently reduce public spending as a proportion of GDP - and Gordon Brown's 2002 solution has been to refinance Railtrack/Network Rail's debt through private loans from banks underwritten by Treasury 'letters of comfort', rather than through the more costly 1992 option of private-financing through equity from shareholders.
Railtrack's Chief Executive at the time of the Hatfield disaster, Gerald Corbett, interviewed on BBC said; "The railways were ripped apart at privatisation and the structure that was put in place was a structure designed, if we are honest, to maximise proceeds to the Treasury." This is the argument that in its various forms seeks to persuade us that it isn't the policy of rail privatisation as such that is at fault, so much as the 'wrong kind of privatisation'.
Last month the Thatcherite diehards at the Adam Smith Institute published a report reiterating precisely this argument. It is also ironically, a canard that Gordon Brown would have the public believe secures 'the public interest' in the PPP of the London Underground. It isn't true, it is a lie and although it seems churlish to complain given its great strengths, the main failing of 'The Crash That Stopped Britain' is that it fails adequately to nail this final myth.
The assets of British Rail were disposed of way below their market price between 1993 and 1995. State subsidy to the privatised railway industry today is more than double that pre-privatisation. Jack's best shot at explaining why New Labour sustains this arrangement and wants to extend it to the Tube is that it allows "the nationalisation of credit and the privatisation of blame."
What is missing from this admittedly rather neat formulation however, is any acknowledgement of the fact that rail privatisation was explicitly designed by Tory politicians to smash the national collective bargaining power of some of the few remaining trade unions in Britain with significant industrial muscle, the railway unions.
In 1989, the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR)'s 6-days of strikes was the first successful national industrial dispute since the 1985 defeat of the mineworkers, which was considered by some to have permanently cowed the trade unions and put an end to national industrial militancy. The demonisation of the railway unions by the Tory press of that time led James (Lord) Sterling, then owner of P&O and now of GNER the company whose train crashed at Hatfield, to describe Jimmy Knapp (NUR General Secretary) as "a communist!"
No final explanation of the reasons for rail privatisaton in Britain is possible without an understanding of the political fear, which the British State and ruling class has for organised labour. The rail unions do not play a part in Jack's story and the omission makes his investigation incomplete.
In a telling chapter entitled Workers, Jack quotes Permanent Way workers interviewed over three years earlier, about their safety concerns as they witnessed the unravelling of rail privatisation. As he points out, the interviews were anonymous; "speaking to the press - whistleblowing - is now usually a breach of contract."
The infamous 'gagging clause' introduced into railworkers' contracts of employment after the NUR strike in 1989, has been the most effective method of preventing workers' safety concerns being acted upon. In case after case railworkers have been pressurised into silence through the reminder of their contractual duty of confidentiality to the private owners who weigh their lives and the lives of rail passengers as of lesser importance than the drive for productivity and profit, or victimised and sacked like a succession of union representatives in the rail industry.
Jack's conclusion is therefore not entirely satisfying. Politicians and their advisers, he argues - the 'Kaisers' of rail privatisation - are the guilty men. However, his devastating indictment of the personal responsibility borne by such individuals, ultimately is not a sufficient strategy to resolve the political and social crises that privatisation strategies have led to. The failed prosecutions for corporate manslaughter at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield confirm not only the failure of the prosecution cases, but a wider failure to hold company directors and corporations to account.
Justice for the relatives of the victims of Hatfield demands an effective corporate manslaughter law to ensure that bosses responsible for avoidable deaths are held to account. However to do so successfully also requires a reassertion of socialist values of public ownership and the need to reverse remorceless drives by Tory and Labour governments over a 20 year period at privatising public services.
Thatcher was brought down by her own colleagues' internecine feuding over European Monetary Union, but her government's authority had already been shown to be waning by a mass, working class refusal to pay Poll Tax. Blair's administration like Thatcher's, has tried and failed - the ludicrously inflated housing market excepted - to convince British society that there is popular model for the private ownership of everything. PPP on the Tube, PFI in schools and hospitals and a default position of privatisation of public services from meat inspection to Air Traffic Control remains New Labour's weakest link. With the scheduled ratification by the European Parliament in October 2005 of the European Commission's 'Directive on Services' this battle is about to be rejoined in earnest. The book that describes how to organise to defeat the new neo-liberal economic order still remains to be written.
September 8, 2005