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  • Sam Stevens

Mixed signals: why strikes are the least of the railway’s problems

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

The die is cast. Today, and on Saturday, railway workers across Britain will strike. Three unions will be involved; the RMT, headed up by Mick Lynch, will be joined on their pickets by ASLEF, alongside workers from the TSSA. It’s unprecedented, and yet could be the tip of the iceberg. And as impossible as it is to separate the strikes from the cost of living crisis, there are other motivations for the striking workers.

Like job security.

Network Rail are cutting 2,500 jobs in railway maintenance. As Chancellor, Rishi Sunak demanded that the railways find savings; his successor will follow suit. The Treasury wants a return on the financial support it gave to rail companies during the pandemic. Consequently, the government seek greater control over our railways.

2023 will see Britain’s railways undergo their biggest shake-up since privatisation. Control will be assumed by Great British Railways (GBR), who will combine Network Rail’s responsibilities with those of the DfT, with added influence over private train operators. Passenger services will now be subcontracted out, rather than tendered to the highest or swankiest bidder. The government will run everything; GBR will be like a glove with their ruling hand inside.

Its architects are Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, and Keith Williams, the former CEO of British Airways, who chaired the Rail Review. However, the latter’s contributions indicate that the spirit of this new enterprise – ostensibly designed to fix the network – could instead push it beyond breaking point. Because, says Williams, “You don’t create a customer-focused railway by putting engineers in charge”.

In the 1990s, the Conservative government set about enacting one of the most misguided policies in recent political history. The privatisation of British Rail was a drawn-out political mess, a masterclass of unworkable policy pushed through regardless, all stemming from a manifesto commitment made before a general election that the party expected to lose.

The Tories didn’t just sell our train services; they sold the track, too, creating a company prosaically called Railtrack. Railtrack were businessmen, with no interest in putting engineers in charge. None of their executives had any prior experience within public transport, and the word ‘engineering’ didn’t appear on the company’s floor plan until the end. Railtrack subcontracted maintenance of the railways out to various construction firms, in one fell swoop divesting the complex engineering knowledge that British Rail had built up over time. All the industry experience in the bank was forgotten.

This was by design. Railway historians, such as Ian Jack and Christian Wolmar, have repeatedly identified a core failing of Railtrack: the marginalisation of engineering knowledge in favour of corporate interests. Profit became the sole objective; after all, you don’t build a consumer-oriented railway without putting businessmen in charge. The newly-rebranded Labour party voiced seemingly implacable dissent in opposition, but upon assuming office, this melted away. Tony Blair’s government even began and completed the partial privatisation of London Underground. Railway privatisation went uncontested.

A string of fatal incidents followed. Seven deaths in a crash at Southall, West London, in 1997; another 31 at Ladbroke Grove, a matter of miles away, in 1999 – a train missed a red signal, but this particular signal was heavily obstructed – a problematic risk to rail drivers – and had been flagged to Railtrack repeatedly – without any action; then, in October 2001, four people were killed at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, when a rail broke under a train. It became clear that corporate negligence was to blame. Again, the exact rail was a known risk, due for replacement; Railtrack had umm’ed and ahh’ed and then finally, the replacement rails were delivered, but were never fitted, and the necessary speed restrictions were never imposed. The following year, another seven people were killed, again a short distance away at Potters Bar, when a train derailed; the nuts from the junction were found lying by the side of the track.

It’s not just fragmentation of rails. It’s fragmentation of responsibility; of the industry, of decades of knowledge and expertise. And it is set to happen again. One of the primary motivations for privatisation in the 1990s was to quash the powerful railway unions; the government’s ire for the unions has actively prevented a settlement being reached with the train companies. Now, Tory frontrunner Liz Truss is vowing to crack down on the right to industrial action. Her plans may encompass Shapps’ proposal to introduce agency workers to replace strikers. It doesn’t look pretty.

Lynch has accused Shapps of “suggesting the elimination of engineering specialisms and skills which could be inefficient and dangerous for the railway”, and I’d bank on it. As ex-BR manager Gerard Fiennes said, in the 1960s: “When you reorganise, you bleed”. It is now 25 years since privatisation was completed, and 20 years since Potter’s Bar and the liquidation of Railtrack. Now, the frequency of rail incidents slowly increases, and the climate emergency brings fresh concerns, like flooding, landslips, and rails buckling in heat. In 2020, three people were killed in a derailment near Stonehaven, and since then we’ve seen derailments at Dalwhinnie and Coatbridge, collisions at Salisbury and Kirkby, overspeeding at Peterborough… if something does go very wrong, will the lessons then be learned?

Those pesky strikers. Some liken the situation to the 70s, but the 90s are more apt. Once again, an inept, unpopular government – in the aftermath of a party-political coup – hobbles towards destruction at the ballot box, hopelessly trying to mash the bent pieces of the railways together in the hope of generating their dream profit machine, while a corporate-friendly, centrist opposition waits in the wings. Will they grasp the nettle this time? Keir Starmer has twice U-turned on his pledge to renationalise rail: when push comes to shove, will he commit to upending GBR? It remains to be seen whether Lynch’s pleas will avoid their almost inevitable tumble onto deaf ears. I’m not hopeful. But after all, given everything that Westminster has done over the past few years, who would recognise yet another train crash?


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