Rail maintenance renationalised

On Thursday October 23 Network Rail announced that it was to take all track maintenance work back in house - effectively renationalising the majority of rail maintenance contracts. Bill Stanley reports

Three thousand, five hundred railworkers will now be employed by the ‘not for profit’, government-run company that took over from that other disaster, Railtrack. The rail trade unions naturally were ecstatic over this move. Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, said: “It’s now clear that rail privatisation is firmly in its coffin and is now waiting only for the hole to be dug.”

So what has brought about this reversal of the fortunes of these private companies and this apparent conversion of the Blair government to ‘socialist’ policy? The main reason is that the government has discovered via Network Rail that it was being ripped off. Ever since Railtrack collapsed, Network Rail has been trying to identify where all those billions of pounds of state funding had gone. The railways were in a worse state than before the money poured in. Network Rail started to examine in-house maintenance contracts as they came up for renewal in order to compare the price with what the contractors were charging. The difference was astronomical.

However, the convenient excuse was Jarvis, one of the biggest of the rail contractors, which also has plenty of NHS work via the private finance initiative. The catalogue of disasters started with the Hatfield crash, when a GNER express derailed at 110mph after a length of rail shattered beneath it. Jarvis was responsible for the track. Next came Potters Bar, involving another train on the east coast mainline. It was derailed at 100mph when a set of Jarvis-maintained points fell apart and moved as the train passed over. Seven passengers died and Jarvis notoriously tried to put the blame on saboteurs! The saga continued at Aldwarke Junction, near Rotherham, when faulty track work derailed a freight train. Jarvis are to appear at Sheffield crown court in December to answer charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act. On the same day as the Rotherham derailment the company failed to inform the signaller at Retford that a broken rail had been found.

Jarvis then embarrassed Blair on the day he was opening the new Channel Tunnel link, forgetting to replace a 1.5-metre length of rail outside Kings Cross, derailing yet another GNER express. GNER could be forgiven in thinking that Jarvis had it in for them. On August 20 Jarvis neglected to insert the clips securing a replaced rail at Milton Keynes station. A Virgin Express passed over at 110 mph. Luckily the train did not derail, but debris flying up injured a number of waiting passengers. The latest scandal involves the company falsifying records on a section of line between Macclesfield and Stoke-on-Trent. Jarvis had failed to ‘stress’ the rail correctly, thereby risking yet another derailment on a high-speed line.

Last weekend two London Transport tube trains came off the rails - Jarvis was responsible for the track at Camden Town. The RMT is quite rightly balloting for industrial action. This been the third derailment on LT since Blair forced privatisation onto the network. The RMT is calling on the government to do a Network Rail on the tube.

But is this adequate? Certainly, privatisation has been well and truly exposed as a device for creating profit for the few (while weakening union power) at the expense of the needs - and most clearly the safety - of travellers and the workforce. However, British Rail, London Underground and all the rest were characterised by bureaucracy. And having representatives of the great and good from the trade union movement on the board would not suddenly make renationalised companies democratic and accountable.

What is needed is the control of the entire, renationalised industry by its workers and passengers - those with the greatest interest in ensuring comfort, efficiency and, most of all, safety.