Another fatal rail accident


 

On Tuesday 17 October a GNER train travelling at high speed from King’s Cross to Leeds came off the rails near Hatfield in Hertfordshire. The result of this accident was the loss of four lives and 33 people injured.

The cause of the accident was quickly identified as a broken rail. At the same time, the cause of the broken rail was equally rapidly identified as cost cutting by Railtrack, the privately-owned company currently franchised to run the national railway lines, in pursuit of profit. The same company’s cost cutting in pursuit of profit was also, it will be remembered, the cause of the Paddington rail disaster last year. That crash happened after a driver had passed a red signal, and it transpired that Railtrack had failed to respond to repeated complaints from engine drivers that the signal in question was well-nigh impossible to see.

The Hatfield disaster, on the other hand, was caused in all probability by ‘gauge corner cracking’ – a series of fractures in the rail – which happens on high-speed lines, particularly, but not exclusively, at tight corners

“when the sheer force exerted by the wheels of 90-tonne engines causes fissures in the steel”

(

The Independent,

20 October 2000). Apparently

“Railtrack deals with the problem in its early stages by grinding or filing down the railhead before it becomes unsafe”.

But there are experts who believe that this in itself weakens the rail still further and that the only proper way to deal with the problem is track renewal.

Track renewal, however, is an area which has been consistently targeted by Railtrack for cost reduction. They call this process of cost reduction ‘increasing efficiency’, but, as facts keep demonstrating, the efficiency of profit enhancement is in direct contradiction with the efficient delivery of a good service. Railtrack, says

The Independent

of 20 October

“knew six months ago about the ‘grave’ state of the line near Hatfield”.

Jonathon Carr-Brown in the

Sunday Times

of 22 October goes further:

The appalling truth is that this tragic crash was entirely avoidable. Eleven months ago, inspectors walked this length making their weekly visual check. Since privatisation in 1996, such checks are carried out not by Railtrack but by contractors from the construction firm Balfour Beatty. On that morning last December, the inspection team had been ‘horrified’ by the state of the track …

… Balfour Beatty immediately recommended that Railtrack urgently renew the five-year-old track.

So why was this track still in such a lethal state nearly a year later?”

(‘The shock truth about our railways’).

The answer is, of course, because no action was taken to repair it. In fact, it now emerges that Railtrack has been aware for some time of some 81 sections of track that urgently require repair in the interests of passenger safety. Broken rails as a whole have risen in number from 750 in 1995 to 937 last year. An independent assessment for the rail regulator last year found more than

“10 per cent of Britain’s rail network was in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ condition”

(

Scotland on Sunday,

22 October 2000) – in other words no less than 2,000 miles of track can best be described as ‘clapped out’. To add insult to injury, “

Railtrack will not tell the public where the

[dangerous]

sites are nor where broken tracks have been reported, nor reveal whether any region or line has a greater problem than others …”

(See

The Times,

19 October 2000).

It is not only Railtrack that is concealing this information:

“At the Health and Safety Executive, the spokeswoman said it knew where tracks had broken over the last year but would not disclose the locations on the ground that some information was ‘commercially confidential'”

(

ibid.

).

So much for the independence of our ‘independent watchdogs’. They too are required, it seems, above all other considerations to watch out for the profits of those who flout health and safety requirements!!

Despite this it seems, according to

The Independent

of 20 October, that Railtrack had been

“planning to cut its track renewal programme”.

If you have ever wondered what sort of person you have to be to command a salary like that of Mr Gerald Corbett, Railtrack’s chief executive, of over £400,000 a year, then now you know. You must have a special kind of tunnel vision which enables you to keep your eyes exclusively on the profits and not allow yourself to be distracted by such trivia as public safety.

Disputes with subcontractors

Such repair and renewal work as is still carried out on the GNER track has been subcontracted by the penny-pinching Railtrack to another penny-pinching profit-driven outfit, Balfour Beatty. For some time the companies have been accusing each other of compromising safety in the interest of profit. Railtrack has long been firing letters off to Balfour Beatty complaining of the shoddiness of their work. For example, a letter from Railtrack’s Mick Pollard to Balfour Beatty recently complained bitterly about appalling standards of workmanship in work carried out on approaches to Leeds Station, one of the busiest in the national network.

“Mr Pollard said joints requiring four connecting bolts had been left with only three because of a shortage, protective covers were lifted off or broken, and cables had been left loose in ballast rather than being pinned to sleepers. This demonstrated ignorance ‘coupled with a lack of discipline and rigour among supervisors'”

(

Guardian,

25 October 2000).

On the other hand,

“Brian Clancy, chairman of the Association of Consulting Engineers, said Railtrack’s staff ‘openly boast of driving down the cost of rail maintenance. As salaries and costs rise, this is bound in the long run to result in firms not being able to offer as fast or as intensive a service as they would wish’.

He said Railtrack bosses ‘need to radically alter their approach and accept that more money needs to be spent on track and lineside maintenance to ensure the highest possible safety standards’…

… Balfour Beatty would not comment specifically on the statement, but agreed with its sentiments … the contractors say they are being squeezed and that their profit margins are dropping”

(

Guardian,

20 October). And further,

“Contractors have noticed increased belt tightening by Railtrack. One of them complained: ‘We are being asked to forget about the quality of the work because it might take longer, but simply to get it done and return the Railway back to Railtrack’ …

Another contractor admitted: ‘In some cases we are having to cut corners, going to the limits of what is safe. The work is sometimes no more than a patched up job”

(

ibid.

). Thus it is clear that in the chase after profits, safety standards are affected in two main ways:

Insufficient money is made available for adequate maintenance and renewal work; and

Insufficient time is afforded to contractors to enable them to carry out the work properly. When track is closed for repair, Railtrack cannot make money by charging train companies to use it, and furthermore incurs financial penalties if it is closed for longer than a very short period. This inevitably means that Railtrack has been consistently keeping track open which it knew to be unsafe. Hatfield was thus an accident that was waiting to happen. Somewhere, somehow, accidents of this kind are inevitable because of the risks to which Railtrack has been subjecting the trains which use its tracks.

Quite rightly the Crown Prosecution Service is considering bringing manslaughter charges against Railtrack’s management.

The government too is to blame

It must nevertheless be borne in mind that it is not only the rail companies who must take the blame. After all, everybody knew all along that they were in business to make profits! The Tories who privatised the railways and the Labour Party who has refused to renationalise them despite Prescott’s ranting when in opposition that this would be one of the first acts of a Labour government must also bear the blame.

The fact of the matter is that stinginess in pursuit of capitalist profit is not a characteristic only of individual private enterprises such as Railtrack or Balfour Beatty. It is also characteristic of the government when charged with spending on the rail service, be it the nationalised rail service or the subsidisation of private capital.

When railways were a state monopoly, such of their running costs as were not met from fares, freight charges, rental incomes, etc., had to be met from public funds. The source of public funds can, in the last analysis, only be surplus value – the wealth created by the working class over and above what is allowed to it for its own survival and reproduction. Whatever is taken for public purposes, whether it is taken by taxing the rich or the poor, is a drain on the fund from which profits are drawn (taxation of the poor ultimately requires payment of higher wages so that the poor can pay their taxes and still survive).

The government of any bourgeois state, like Britain is, can only spend what its political masters, the bourgeoisie – the ‘business interests’ – allow them to spend. But just as the individual privately-owned corporation, such as Railtrack, is forever seeking to cut costs in the interests of profit, so is the collectivity of privately-owned corporations – the capitalist class which owns them – forever seeking to cut costs, including government expenditure.

Because of this stinginess, the railways in Britain were even prior to privatisation in dire straits, and there is a great deal of truth in what the

Sunday Telegraph

of 22 October has to say about the old British Rail, even if, infatuated as it is with Thatcherite Toryism, it can hardly be described as unbiased:

British Rail was actually one of the worst railways in Europe …

It was statistically less safe than today’s network and its reputation was dreadful in every respect. Its rolling stock was dilapidated, its stations shabby, its signalling systems often decades out of date, its staff demoralised. It was chronically unpunctual, subject to constant disruption by equipment failure, union disputes and absenteeism. Its attempt to build a high-speed train to match France’s TGVs ended in humiliating failure, because the prototype could not negotiate the bends on existing mainline tracks.”

Needless to say, the reason for this appalling state of affairs was not

per se

the fact that the railways were at that time nationalised, but the fact that they were starved of cash.

The whole purpose of privatisation was to enable the government to avoid the cost of bringing the railways up to scratch. Whizz kid economists from the Adam Institute thought they had hit upon a way of killing two birds with one stone: why not privatise the railways (along with numerous other underfunded public services) so as to enable the government to avoid the expense of updating them while at the same time creating an avenue for investment for the mass of capital in the world that is looking for a home? What these geniuses slightly overlooked, however, is that international capital is not looking for just any home. It insists on a profitable home.

As a result, privatised modernisation is more expensive than publicly funded modernisation. Each of the privatised concerns has shareholders, creditors and directors who all expect to gain substantially from their respective contributions. In other words, millions of pounds that might have been spent on repairs, track renewals, etc., is instead distributed to various extremely demanding parasites and bloodsuckers. Railtrack is to be allowed clear profit for the benefit of its parasites to the tune of £2.6 billion over the next five years – nearly £1.5 million A DAY – enough to repair a lot of rails and improve a great deal of signalling!!!

A further complication is that the capitalist class does not only relate to the rail service in terms of paying for it, but also as consumer. As paymaster it expects costs to be cut to the bone. As consumer it expects the service to be cheap to use. In other words, it expects to have its cake and eat it. Hence the franchisees of the privatised rail service are expected to lower fares and increase services. With greater investment in technology, they may in the long run be able to do just that. But in the short term – and it is only 5 years since privatisation of the railways – it stands no chance of maintaining profitability while simultaneously spending large sums to put right years of neglect. Even the Tory government recognised this fact and made provision for an annual subsidy of £2 billion to be made available to the rail franchisees (twice as much as prior to privatisation it had been paying to run British Rail), in order that the various rail companies stood some chance of making a profit at al in the early years. Following the accidents at Southall, Paddington and Hatfield, the government has had substantially to increase Railtrack’s income. It is ironic that by killing people Railtrack could persuade the government that it needed far more government money than had been envisaged when it obtained the franchise. Normally a business that is insufficiently profitable – as Railtrack would be if it carried out modernisation and repairs conscientiously – would have to close. The railways, however, have the government over a barrel. They cannot be left to decide to close down, since railways are an essential service to the entire capitalist class. That is why they were nationalised in the first place. Thus, in order to keep them going, the government has to spend billions satisfying the voracious greed for profit of Railtrack’s private owners.

From the point of view of efficiency a nationalised industry is streets ahead of the motley of money-grubbing concerns – characterised by relatively huge management costs, duplication of effort, lack of co-ordination, impossibility of an overall planning strategy, and mutual recriminations. The

Financial Times

leader of 19 October gives a graphic example which encapsulates the idiocy of the present arrangements for running our privatised railways:

There is … conflict between different parts of the industry. Tracks are mostly damaged, for example, by heavy old locomotives. But investment in modern, lighter train systems is outside Railtrack’s control. It lies with leasing companies and with the train operators”

- who themselves, it must be added, are also only prepared to modernise insofar as considerations of profitability allow.

Even that staunchest advocate of privatisation, the

Sunday Telegraph,

was forced ruefully to acknowledge it was prophetic that it was on April Fool’s Day (1994) that “

John MacGregor announced the final scheme: BR would be split into no fewer than 70 companies.

The result has been that: “

The Hatfield crash is symbolic of a fragmented industry, in which decisions about what is best for safety, efficiency and growth in traffic are confused by a grotesque mishmash of conflicting financial interests”

(

ibid).

The

Sunday Telegraph

is too blinded by adoration of Thatcherism to draw the obvious conclusions. It believes that

“ministers

[who]

now face increasing demands to reinvent an integrated rail network that lives up to the expectations of its users”

should resist the temptation to give in to such demands. The

Sunday Telegraph

believes it was nationalisation which gave rise to the problems in the first place. Quite obviously, however, this simply is not true. It was UNDERFUNDING of the nationalised industry that caused the problem, not the fact of nationalisation itself. Nationalisation would get rid of a whole host of absurdities. Proper funding, financed by high taxation of the wealthy, could put right most of what is wrong with the railways today. What is really needed, however, is of course the complete expropriation of all the moneybags whose lust for profit really has been, and is, at the heart of the problem with British railways (and most of what else is wrong with our society) – both before privatisation and since.