Britain: Give us back our public rail service!
by Daphne Liddle Just three weeks ago, the survivors of the Paddington rail crash said, on the anniversary of that disaster, that nothing had been done to prevent it happening again at any time — and it just has. The 12.IOpm inter-city from London Kings Cross to Leeds on Tuesday last week derailed just outside Hatfield and came to grief with four dead and 29 injured. Initial theories on the cause of the accident included terrorism, vandalism and faulty train wheels. But as we go to press it seems most likely that a broken rail found at the site of the accident was the cause. A disturbing picture is emerging. The transport union RMT has reported that subcontractor Balfour Beatty has been working in the area for Railtrack replacing old and damaged rails. Some were replaced last May, the rest, including the one that broke, due to be done next month. The union also reports an increase in the numbers of cracks in rails on that line since it has been used regularly by Eurostar trains, with much heavier than usual engines. The accident happened on a bend, as the GNER train was travelling at 185 miles an hour. RMT is asking that if Balfour Beatty knew there were problems with cracked rails in that stretch, why a warning was not passed on to the train companies to restrict speed, especially on bends where centrifugal forces put extra strain on wheels and rails. Since the crash, Railtrack has imposed speed restrictions on all similar stretches of track throughout Britain. This has led to a total disruption of rail services and exposes the privatised rail services' inability to deliver a safe and efficient rail service as they are contracted to do. Rail safety expert Roy Bell said the root cause of the accident was the way that British Rail was divided up when it was privatised by the Tories in 1995. With so much fragmentation into Railtrack, train operators, subcontractors like Balfour Beatty and so on, there is no single body to hold responsible, no single chain of command. All the companies involved can blame each other and pass the buck. Last December, the Health and Safety Executive fined Railtrack over a 20 percent rise in the number of broken rails discovered annually since privatisation. There have been umpteen reports criticising railtrack for poor maintenance. Rail workers have many times pointed out that the subcontractors employed by Railtrack to do the work — as cheaply as possible to protect profits — employ low-paid, unskilled workers who do not have the experience and safety culture of the old British Rail track workers. There have been enough long, drawn out, fruitless inquiries to know that what is needed is a big increase in spending on safety on the railways. But the privatised companies are not going to deliver this as long as profit is their main motive. Railtrack makes more than Ll million in profit every day and the train companies are doing nicely too. The only way to control the way the railways are run and to restore a culture of safety is to bring them back into public ownership.
* * *New Worker, paper of New Communist Party of Britain, abridged