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Proletarian issue 10 (February 2006)
Railway privatisation – an insider’s view
When I joined the railways in the 1970s, they were part of a publicly owned transport system. Many of my colleagues had been working on the railway for 20, 30, 40 and up to 50 years. They were people who had dedicated their lives to the railway; it was in their blood. Working-class people really ran the railways, with supervisors who knew the workers all working together to make sure the trains ran and the track was repaired and renewed.

The track workers working for British Rail had many years’ experience, and all tracks were inspected daily by workers who knew their section of track. We drivers saw the same workers on the tracks and got to know their faces – we knew they were experienced and were doing the job of track maintenance properly.

Public money at that time was invested in the railway and spent on the railway. Wages were not very high, but railway workers often worked overtime to keep the trains running as a labour of love. We did not have many managers, as the workers knew what they were doing; we made sure that trains were not cancelled and would often hold connecting trains to ensure we ran an integrated railway system.

Because we all wore the same uniforms you could go to any railway location and people you had never met before would say hello, so that you felt at home and part of a large family. Trains were all painted the same colour and if there was a fault on a train you could quickly switch to another one and keep delays to a minimum. Profits from busy lines were used as a counterbalance for those that were less busy, since the whole network was needed and valued as part of an integrated transport system.

The capitalist press and media always criticised the nationalised railway – mainly by making jokes about dry, curled up sandwiches or ignorant platform staff, because any real study would have shown a well-performing system with minimal public subsidy to keep services running. The vast majority of the world’s railways require a public subsidy and with nationalised systems no money is stolen by shareholders but is instead invested in the system.

After 22 years of being happy working on the railway, privatisation was imposed on us. Before the private companies took over, we suddenly started to see massive track renewal programmes. Money seemed to be pouring in to renew everything before the private companies took over. When privatisation finally arrived, more public money was given every year to the new rail companies, but this was meant to reduce over a number of years. As the public subsidy was reduced, the private companies said they could not run services, so they were given more money. The public money given to the track companies was spent training workers to repair track as all trained track workers had been made redundant before privatisation. This was meant to save the private companies from having to pay higher wages to those employees that had been working for many years in the job. All the new track companies had lots of managers, which put up the cost of repairs before any workers had even set foot on the track.

The rolling stock companies were given the trains to lease back to the train operating companies who hired the trains and were also responsible for repairing them. In effect, these new rolling stock companies had just been given large amounts of money with no risk and only the cost of paying a few administrative staff. Some rolling stock companies sold the trains they were given to the banks, and the company bosses became overnight millionaires, having pocketed the value of these public assets.

The standard British Rail uniforms were discarded and over thirty different uniforms introduced, with all old stock being thrown away – more waste of public money!

The September 2005 report by liberal think-tank Catalyst into the performance of the privatised train operators gave a detailed breakdown of the increases in subsidies to the rail companies, while also showing their massively increased revenues from fares. When the rail service was publicly owned, the subsidies kept fares down and enabled quieter lines to keep running; today, the subsidies simply go to pay profits to shareholders – the services are fewer, less efficient and more expensive. Although the number of people employed by the privatised companies is fewer, the wage bill is significantly higher. One reason for this is that skilled workers have been replaced by layers of management for all the various companies now involved in running the railways. There are, however, less people who actually drive and staff the trains, mend the track etc, all of whom have to work harder and under worse conditions. This is capitalist efficiency in action!

The waste and absurdity of the privatised railways is typified by my final example: in one particular location, three supervisors previously ran a depot on a 24-hour cover. These three were got rid of and today six managers and a clerk run the same depot, but mainly restricted to daylight hours!

> Leaflet: Renationalisation of the railways will not be achieved without a fight

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