After Hatfield rail safety demands workers' control

The horrific crash of the high speed 12:10 London to Leeds train near Hatfield, with four deaths and 26 hospitalised has come to symbolise the true face of rail privatisation. This latest accident, only a year after Ladbroke Grove and Southall, has put the spotlight on the state of Britain's railways.

Railtrack, after much initial prevarication, when everything from vandalism to bomb blasts came under suspicion, eventually admitted the cause was a broken rail. In an infamous understatement a spokesperson said that the track was "not good". This on a curved line with a speed of 115 mph! Instances of cracked rails have shot up since privatisation.

The Hatfield accident, however, has had Railtrack's chief executive Gerald Corbett playing the role of both defendant and prosecutor. Having tendered his resignation and been urged to stay, most tellingly by the Paddington Survivors' Group, he has gone on the attack. After clearly laying the blame on the Tories' botched privatisation, he challenged the Blair government to respond.

Corbett correctly identifies two key faults. Firstly, breaking up the railway system into 25 train operating companies plus Railtrack. Secondly, the financial regime whereby everyone claims off everyone else. This has resulted in serious financial penalties against Railtrack whenever it has imposed speed restrictions or undertaken essential track work.

Railtrack has responded by subcontracting to the likes of Balfour Beatty, with tight contracts and heavy penalties for overrunning. In turn this has led to corner-cutting and sometimes outright fiddling of inspection reports. Subcontracting has also led to a lack of control and to direct attacks on the working conditions and union organisation of track maintenance staff. Experienced workers have left the industry and new recruits are turned out onto the railway with little knowledge or training.

So what is needed to make Britain's railways safe? Automatic Train Protection would have prevented Southall and Ladbroke Grove. Railtrack, with the connivance of the government, has pushed for the much cheaper but less sophisticated Train Protection and Warning System. This only stops trains once they have passed a red signal. Aslef has a policy of immediate installation of ATP, or else we take industrial action.

Some on the left, especially the Labourites, call for renationalisation and a return to British Rail. Although this would improve the situation by bringing the industry back together, it does not address the issues of investment and democratic control.

Swapping greedy private capitalists for cash-strapped state capitalists is not in itself a real solution. We need to combine the demand for renationalisation with the call for democratic workers' control. We must insist that rail transport is fully funded, and safety is not played off against service and efficiency. The state as the executive committee of the capitalist class must foot the bill, whatever the cost.

However, such problems cannot be permanently solved under exploitative economic relations. Like everything else under capitalism, rail safety comes with a price-tag attached.

Peter Grant
Manchester Piccadilly Aslef and Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance



True face of rail privatisation

Serious questions need to be asked about the Hatfield rail crash. Why has it taken so long to address the known fact that there are major problems with the rail infrastructure? Over 940 broken rail incidents have been recorded so far this year. Why has it taken 10 months to respond to the situation of the rail defect at Hatfield, this being the cause of the derailment and consequent death of four people?

Now we find blanket speed restrictions of 50mph and 80mph imposed on curves such as those like the stretch of track at Hatfield. The phrase 'too little, too late' springs to mind. As if to emphasise the inadequacy of the response, another passenger train was derailed just outside Stafford two days later (this time at low speed, thank goodness). This accident - on the Virgin service from Birmingham to Manchester - was also caused by a broken rail.

How long do we have to wait for the next tragedy to happen? It is time to call for safety to be put before profit. Railtrack makes £1 million profit per day, a large part of which is paid out to shareholders. The truth is that privatisation - driven by a desire to tame the rail unions by breaking up the network, while simultaneously lining the pockets of the fat cats - has resulted in a lack of coordination, an increase in bureaucracy, poor service and, as we have seen, a scandalous compromising of safety.

Not only Railtrack, but all train operating companies must be immediately taken out of the hands of the profiteers and renationalised. We make this demand not because we have any illusions that such a step would somehow make the industry 'ours' (nationalisation under capitalism equals the collective ownership of the bourgeoisie, not of the people). Still less do we believe that it would be a step towards socialism. However, we must force the state to act to safeguard railworkers and passengers.

But we must not leave it there. There is a better way to ensure safety, and that is through workers themselves, irrespective of their union, taking action to bring the trains, the infrastructure and working practices under their direct control. Workers - whether employed by Railtrack, the train operating companies (TOCs) or subcontractors - have a burning interest in maximising safety and know perfectly well what steps are needed and how they can be carried through.

Trade unions in the rail industry should not only be calling, but fighting for renationalisation, but I doubt if they will. And of course workers' control is just about the least likely demand we would expect to hear from the present set of union leaders. While support from national executive members is obviously more than welcome, activists themselves must step up their campaigning for workers to take matters into their own hands.

Derek Goodliffe
RMT grades executive and Eastern Region Socialist Alliance