Jail rail killers

More than a year after the Potters Bar rail crash, Network Rail are still trying to shuffle off responsibility for the fact that it was their criminal negligence and their greed that led to the death of seven people. Ernie Shenton reports

This is not just a scandal. It is a crime (or should be), called corporate manslaughter. Though corporate murder would be a more accurate, if a less legalistically acceptable term.

The directors of companies who rake in grossly inflated salaries, dividends and perks by running businesses in which their workers and even their customers end up getting killed should pay with their liberty - not with ‘compensation’ payments, or fines, which come from the accumulated fund of surplus value extracted from the workers themselves, together with massive tax handouts from the government. How much does one human life mean in terms of a slight reduction in the next bonus payment to the parasites?

More than a year after the Potters Bar rail crash, Network Rail (formerly Railtrack) and one of its myriad of maintenance contractors, Jarvis plc, are still trying to shuffle off responsibility for the fact that it was their criminal negligence and their greed for a fast and easy buck that led to the death of seven people - seven families bereft of their loved ones; scores of others maimed or seriously injured; all of them destined to bear the physical and psychological scars of that horrific experience for the rest of their lives.

It was the sixth major rail accident in six years, one for every year since the break-up of British Rail. As if we needed telling, it showed us what happens when public services are run on half-market, half-bureaucratic lines and managers and sub-contractors are virtually given a free hand to enrich themselves. The privatisation of the railways was a politically motivated attempt to diminish the flow of tax subsidies and break the power of the rail unions. As a result, everything, including safeguarding human lives, took second place to the interests of city fat cats and coupon clippers.

Let us briefly remind ourselves of the facts. On Friday May 10 last year, the 12.45 Kings Cross to King’s Lynn service passed over points outside Potters Bar station at around 100mph. A catastrophic derailment occurred. It was subsequently found that at least two of the vital nuts that secure the stretcher bars operating the points were totally detached, just lying there by the rails.

Railtrack’s first response was to prevaricate and frantically try to pass the buck. Understandable in a way, because they did not have a clue as to which of the more than 1,500 of their subcontractors was actually responsible for maintaining the track around Potters Bar. Remember that from the City’s point of view Railtrack was not really about railways at all, though they were happy to benefit from the small investors’ enthusiasm for yet another privatisation. It was in reality a wonderfully juicy and supposedly risk-free property asset - hundreds of thousands of acres of very valuable development land lying idle in decaying goods yards and sidings, all of it sold off via privatisation for relative pennies.

At the same time it emerged that Jarvis Rail, part of Jarvis plc - one of the ‘principal contractors’ who have made millions out of maintaining the physical infrastructure of the rails since privatisation - was the company responsible for the fateful bit of track.

What was their first reaction, when they were finally cornered by the press? Sabotage. Blame disaffected workers. You know - the sort of people who have the knowledge, the skills and the sheer bloody bravado to set foot on a busy main line track just yards from a station and, using the necessary specialist tools, set about ‘sabotaging’ the line.

Without going into the details, the latest - the third - report from the health and safety executive (May 29) finally blows this politically motivated, anti-working class piece of nonsense out of the water. There was, unsurprisingly, no evidence of ‘sabotage’ whatsoever. What happened was that Jarvis Rail, who evidently does not give a flying fig for anything but profit, used inadequately skilled and insufficiently trained workers on the vital task of track maintenance. Somebody made a mistake, no doubt. But the responsibility rests with management.

On the night before the disaster occurred, a driver reported a “rough ride” on the track where the accident occurred, but his warning went fatally unheeded by a management too preoccupied as always with the bottom line. The cost of shutting down that section of track and subjecting it to a thorough examination would have been prohibitive. The fact is that similar warnings about the state of the track had been reported by an RMT member more than three weeks earlier - simply damning.

Jarvis evidently did not do anything because they were too incompetent, too stupid or just too greedy to be bothered. So the cover story of sabotage had to be maintained. Witness a certain Mr Steven Norris, director of Jarvis plc and the man the Tories want to see as mayor of London: “It’s pretty clear - certainly for anyone who understands the railways - that some tampering has been going on here.”

Whether Norris understands the railways is something I would doubt, but he can certainly understand a plummeting share price when he sees one, and the recognition is even more acute if you happen to be a director in the company concerned. What do seven human lives mean when your own capital is threatened?

Amazingly, against all the evidence, the company still asserts that, “The maintenance of the points was carried out by trained and competent personnel, in accordance with industry guidelines” and urges the police, even now, not to rule out sabotage as the cause of the crash. Why? Because the last thing on earth Jarvis plc or Network Rail will ever do is admit that they were negligent, that they were responsible for the deaths and horrendous injuries and trauma that resulted from this crash.

If you talk to CPGB comrades who work on the rails, you get the real picture. I spoke, for example, to Derek Goodliffe (RMT train crew and shunting executive member and Eastern Region Socialist Alliance), who confirmed that Potters Bar, just like Hatfield, was bound to be pinned on ‘sabotage’ or ‘vandalism’, whereas the real cause was poor maintenance by inadequate, undertrained staff. Only recently there was a letter in his local paper in Peterborough, complaining about the ‘rough ride’ into the town on the main line. What has been done about it? Nothing.

Another, Peter Grant (Manchester Piccadilly Aslef and Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance), pointed to the continuing catastrophic fall in the standards of maintenance and safety inspection on the rails caused by privatisation. As a driver, he experienced a recent incident in Dewsbury where poor communication between track maintenance and signal box workers could easily have led to major fatalities. It was not a one-off but a regular occurrence. If anything, things have got worse since Potters Bar.

Relevant and important as such pieces of anecdotal evidence may be, it is surely clear that what we are dealing with is a political rather than an industrial problem.

Of course, it is absolutely right for Aslef general secretary Mick Rix to condemn Jarvis: “First, it must answer the prime responsibility for the dreadful Potters Bar crash, caused by poor management of maintenance work. Secondly, it has tried to obscure its own failings by raising entirely unsubstantiated allegations about sabotage.” It is also right, as RMT general secretary Bob Crow proposes, that corporate killing legislation should be introduced to forestall further deaths of workers sacrificed on the altar of profit. It is right when lawyers like Louise Christian tells Network Rail and Jarvis that they are going to be sued because they still, after everything, will not accept responsibility for their incompetence.

As all the above would no doubt agree, we are dealing with a government that was and is morally complicit in what happened at Potters Bar. Stephen Byers was happy to go along with the lies about sabotage; the current transport secretary, Alastair (I’ll do anything you want me to, Tony) Darling, blithely assures us that “it must never happen again”.

Obviously, we all agree on that particular truism, but the question is, how can we make sure it does not? From some of our respected comrades on the left, the answer appears to consist of a return to a mythical golden age of state ownership. In the leader column of the Morning Star, for example, we read the following: “All rail maintenance should be brought back in-house as the first step in returning the whole rail network to public ownership, and corporate manslaughter legislation should be introduced to jail company directors whose failure to operate a safety culture kills people” (May 30).

As regards the second part - fine. But the concept of a return to “public ownership” as some kind of mystical panacea is just the old reformist, left Labourite crap that we have heard a thousand times. As if it would make any difference to the emancipation, the self-empowerment of our class. We have been there before, remember?

Who actually owned the rail, the coal and the steel industries, for example? Not the ‘people’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Certainly not the working class. Ownership passed from the hands of some relatively few capitalists into the hands of a small army of bureaucrats and managers acting on behalf of the state, in the interests of capital as a whole.

So it is full circle back to Network Rail. Some people actually convinced themselves somehow that this was a triumph of renationalisation. That was, of course, rubbish. Thanks to the total mismanagement of the company, including the horrors we remember at Hatfield and Potters Bar, Railtrack’s share price collapsed, and a large number of those parasites called investment managers and analysts, who between them either control or influence the movement of billions of pounds on a daily basis, were made to look fools. Their Christmas bonuses, worth more than any worker could dream of earning in a lifetime, were out of the window.

The central executive committee of capital, currently headed by New Labour, had to do something, not least because Blair and co rely rather heavily on retaining capital’s trust and, more to the point, capital’s hefty donations, while the influence of the trade unions is for the moment almost entirely marginalised.

The rail network is crying out for full, open and democratic control by the working class itself: in this case by those who work on it and those who use it - those who have a real interest in its efficiency, comfort and above all safety.