The train crash at Ladbroke Grove Junction, just outside Paddington Station in London, on the morning of Tuesday 5 October, generated a sense of profound shock.
Despite the obvious concern of John Prescott, deputy prime minister with responsibility for transport, to avoid putting the blame on the privatised railway companies, there was no doubt in most peoples' minds about the real cause - it was profiteering.
A Great Western high speed train from Cheltenham hit a three-carriage Thames turbo train, bound for Wiltshire. The crash caused part of the intercity train to burst into flames, totally burning out one of the first class carriages. Nobody knew how many passengers had been inside. It took almost a week before teams could sift through the ashes for human remains. As a result the press engaged in daily speculation as to the numbers killed. As the hours and days passed, their figures went on increasing, with some papers predicting that up to two hundred may have died.
Indeed, at the time of writing, nearly fours weeks later, it seems that a number of passengers are yet to be accounted for and the figure of 30 dead, including both drivers, may still not be the final toll. In any case 160 people were injured and to date several still remain on the critical list. But whatever the number of dead, this was definitely the worst train disaster since the Clapham Junction crash in December 1988 when 35 died.
The intensive press coverage for the five days following the crash at least reflected the public's reaction. However, the horror and dismay expressed was not only due to the carnage, but because it was revealed that the crash may not have happened if an effective safety system, such as Automatic Train Protection (ATP), which prevents any train from passing through a red signal, had been fitted on the Thames turbo.
This also made the public enquiry into the 1997 Southall crash, which had started just before this new disaster, all the more pertinent, because it seemed history had just repeated itself. The Southall crash had happened further down the exact same stretch of track, and also involved a Great Western HST. But this enquiry had been delayed for nearly two years by a failed attempt to bring a criminal prosecution against both the driver of the HST and the bosses of Great Western Trains. Moreover the enquiry's main focus was the absence of a failsafe warning and braking system which would prevent trains from passing red signals.
Consequently, with the Paddington crash, the finger was immediately pointed at the train operating companies and Railtrack, for putting profits before safety. However this did not prevent Prescott from defending Railtrack at an emergency Transport Select Committee meeting, saying: "Operating a safe railway - that's Railtrack's first consideration, not its share price".
However, by then, many people were suddenly discovered that the same Prescott, who had declared after Southall that all trains would be fitted with ATP, had backtracked and chosen a less expensive Train Protection Warning System (TPWS) to be fitted within five years - a system which, incidentally, would not stop any train travelling at over 70mph and would not, therefore, be able to stop HSTs.
In any case, for once, the dead drivers were not the main target for blame, despite the fact that there seemed little doubt that a signal had been passed at danger. Rather, the question of the siting of the signals, the inadequacy of the track and the absence of safety systems became the main issue. Indeed, a media poll published on the 26 October confirmed the fact that the overwhelming reaction of commuters and railworkers alike was to blame the profiteering rail companies. 70% of those polled said that the railways should be taken back into the hands of the state.
A catalogue of negligence
In the days and weeks following the Paddington crash, the extent of the criminal cost-cutting of both train operating companies and Railtrack at the expense of safety became evident.
Railtrack, which owns the tracks and the signalling systems, has responsibility for ensuring that these are functioning safely and that the train companies which operate on its tracks do so within safe limits as well - although the ultimate responsibility for safety lies with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
So what was the situation at Ladbroke Grove Junction? As has been revealed in the weeks subsequent to the crash, there are a host of factors, directly attributable to the policies of Railtrack.
Firstly, the design of this stretch of track is unbelievably complex despite the fact that fast trains are meant to use it. There are six lines running in parallel, and all of them are reversible - that is, they are used in both directions. So instead of having one or two signals at each point where trains can cross onto a different line, there are up to six - a recipe for confusion. Besides, the signal passed at red by the Thames train (number 109) had been complained about repeatedly by drivers, because it was placed too high and obscured by nearby poles, masts and cables. There had been eight recorded instances of signals passed at red on this stretch of track in the previous six years.
Two weeks after the crash, on the day that Paddington Station was due to re-open, two safety officials (one of them a former British Rail Safety Officer) commissioned by the train drivers' union ASLEF, reported that 27 signals along that stretch of track were "unsafe", including signal 109, demonstrating that drivers did not have the minimum seven seconds clear view of this signal when approaching it at the required speed. They recommended that 19 signals should be removed pending upgrading, while 8 required "simplifying". However in its haste to get the station open and profits rolling in again, this work was delayed, pending the official HSE investigation. In the interim a speed limit was imposed and signal 109 was taken out of use.
The only existing safety system which is fitted to all trains (except the few now piloting ATP) - the Advance Warning System - is a sound-based device which was introduced in the 1950s. Each time a signal is passed, at yellow or red, it sounds a klaxon, once, twice, or three times, which has to be cancelled by the driver in order to prevent the brakes being applied automatically. It is not hard to imagine how useless such a system is along a stretch of track such as Ladbroke Junction, where trains are passing so many signals in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, producing constant ringing sounds. The signal control box in Slough, 18 miles to the west of Ladbroke Grove, which controls this maze of signals, may be operating a state of the art "Automatic Route Setting" computerised system. But what good is that when tracks, trains and signals are anything but state of the art?
ATP is an old issue. This is the system which was recommended by the enquiry which followed the Clapham Junction train crash in December 1988. Tory ministers promised that ATP would be fitted throughout the system but later called reneged. They calculated that it would cost £17m for every life saved - and government officials decided cynically that this was not "cost-effective"!
Nine years later, in 1997, after the Southall crash killed 7 people, it was found that the ATP which was being piloted on this train had been switched off because of a fault. It was then Prescott's turn to promise that ATP would be fitted properly to all trains. But by then the cost had gone up to £700m and Prescott opted discreetly for the much cheaper TPWS, for £150m, only to be fitted at key junctions, and only effective on trains travelling at under 70mph.
Today the system which would have cost £700m two years ago, will cost at least £1bn to fit. But is £1bn too high a price to pay in order to save lives for the years to come? The train companies and Railtrack, who have immediately complained that they cannot afford it, earn, in total, over £1bn in profits in just one year, and get £1.8bn in state subsidies! This should not even be an issue!
But of course the real issue is profits. In 1993, the track outside Paddington Station was redesigned to provide extra space for the Heathrow Express, a new "high-yield" fast service linking Paddington to Heathrow airport. Not only was the number of bi-directional lines increased but old safety devices, such as the "sand-drags" which could channel trains crashing through points into a bed of sand, were removed. Of course, Railtrack was aware of the risks involved with bi- directional lines. At the time, it was proposed that at least two of the six lines should be uni-directional. However Railtrack turned this down. All they wanted was to have an additional 100 Heathrow Express trains a day, over and above the existing 674 daily services, because they wanted the additional revenue at any cost - including, as it turned out, the cost of passengers' lives!
Railtrack appears as the main culprit, therefore, in the Ladbroke Grove crash. But the train companies are also culpable. The Thames turbo's front coach was ripped open like a sardine can, having been made of aluminium, which being very light, reduces fuel costs and track charges. In the case of Great Western, the burnt carriage was fitted with locks and sealed windows which trapped passengers inside - of course automatic emergency locks would have cost money! Above all, while the train companies are very keen to shift the blame for the crash onto Railtrack today, who has ever heard them protesting against Railtrack's infringements of safety? All these companies are in it for money only. They may be rivals, but in the end, when it comes to breaking safety rules in order to maximise profits, they are all accomplices.
The privatisation time bomb
Given the potential for chaos and the actual chaos produced by splitting the railways up into 90 different private companies, each with their own interests to serve, it is surprising there have not been many more fatal accidents. But how and why did this irrational situation arise?
During 1982, the third year of Thatcher's government, the Tories decided to restructure the railways, as part of their policy of reducing public spending. Five new "business sectors" were set up. Instead of the previous five regional rail systems, there were now: InterCity, running the main long distance passenger services; Network South East, responsible for commuter, local and regional services in the southeast of England; Regional Railways for all the other regions; Railfreight; Parcels; and lastly, European Passenger services. The aim was to bring what the Tories referred to as "financial discipline" into the service. Each sector was responsible for everything under its jurisdiction, but could provide (at a price) the use of its equipment or a service to another sector. So, for instance, Railfreight had to pay for the use of InterCity tracks by its freight trains. According to the Tories, this was meant to allow better accounting and budget "discipline". What this meant in reality was massive cuts.
In the period between 1982 and 1987 over 70,000 jobs were cut - some 11% of the workforce. The track was reduced by nearly 6%; the number of locomotives by 25%; coaches by 22%; freight wagons by 71% and one in ten stations were closed. British Rail Engineering Ltd cut five out of thirteen of its workshops. In 1986, BREL was restructured into two business groups, one for new build and heavy overhauls, and another for lighter maintenance and repairs. The Tories put the first out to competitive tender and as a result most of the workshops closed. What work remained was mostly taken over by the private sector.
By 1987, the Tories began to consider that privatisation of BR was now appropriate, in line with their general policy. However it was not yet mentioned in their election manifesto. At this point, they were still too unsure of the impact this would have on public opinion, not to mention the possible reaction of railway workers. It took them another two years to make the formal announcement. In the meantime, while they retained the railways in the public sector, they prepared the ground for privatisation by imposing financial "targets" on each of the rail business sectors. In 1988/9 they withdrew the subsidy from InterCity and demanded an 8% real return on assets. By this time freight and parcels were also expected to be financially independent and showing a profit. In the case of Network South East, state funding was reduced from £256m in 1985/6 to £143m in 1990/1 and it too was expected to show a return of 8%.
Eventually by 1990/1, revenues showed a 10.3% increase on the previous two years. Of course, this was presented as a success for the Tories' "budget discipline". But in fact, it was primarily the result of another 11% cut in the number of jobs between 1987 and 1989 and a "pensions holiday" taken in this period.
Eventually the July 1992 White Paper, "New Opportunities for the Railways" as it was euphemistically called, set out the government's proposals for privatisation. And in April 1994, all the operational infrastructure (track, stations and signalling) was transferred from British Rail to Railtrack which was still to remain wholly owned by the government until its flotation, scheduled for 1996.
In addition, 25 train operating companies were set up as "shadow" companies to prepare them for the market. A test period in which an "internal market" operated, while the railways were in fact still public companies, added to the surreal situation. It turned out that despite the most severe cost cutting yet - another 20,000 jobs were cut between 1991 and 1995 - the railways remained more dependent than ever on state subsidy. In fact in 1994-5, £1bn was paid in subsidies to the network as a whole. But an additional £1bn had to be paid in to compensate for the deficit in the internal market - that is the payment the various separate companies had to make for each other's services. Of course there was also the additional cost of separate management structures for each company - adding 9,722 staff while manual jobs were slashed to danger levels. As a result it became clear that the only way to get the private sector interested in bidding for running passenger trains was to use a franchise system (of five to 15 years) which would include a guarantee that government subsidy would stay.
However the whole operation was much easier said than done. By 1995, nothing had yet come to fruition. Then, came the first sale - of the Red Star Parcels division for the sum of £1! By 1996, with the general election coming close, the Tories were becoming nervous. They could not afford a failure on what had been the flagship project of their 1992 Manifesto. Besides privatising Railtrack without privatising train operations was not practicable. Yet there was increasing pressure from vested interests to put Railtrack's huge property assets onto the market. So by May 1996, Railtrack was floated on the stock market and by April 1997, all the franchises for the train operating companies had been sold. For the Tories, this was just in time, as the following month the general election ousted them.
As a result of the Tories' haste to get the whole thing done, none of the hitches were smoothed out. Neither was proper responsibility for safety resolved. It had been pointed out that once Railtrack was a private company, a potential conflict of interests could arise if it had overall responsibility to maintain the safe operation of its own track and signalling as well as vetting the safety status of the train operators. But, as The Economist magazine put it in a recent rail survey, "The Tories preferred to see the railway privatised badly than not at all. And that is what they got." And The Economist should know. After all, it was whole- heartedly in favour of this privatisation at the time!
It is worth noting that when the Tory government was considering its options for privatisation, back in 1992, the problem of how this was going to make profits for any private company which took over a franchise led them to consider that the bulk of the gain would have to come from savings on labour costs - even though at the time traincrews accounted for no more than 10% of BR's overall costs. This is what their report said: "Until new staff were trained, new operators would have to employ former BR staff. The change would be eased if the Railway Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive accepted shorter periods for training and route learning, but public concern about rail safety makes substantial relaxation unlikely." Unlikely? But, in fact, this is precisely what happened!
Disasters waiting to happen
The consequences of this shoddy sell-off are common knowledge today since most of the public has to use rail transport at some time or another. And this first and foremost means being ripped off financially. Train fares on Britain's trains are among the highest in the world. Taken mile for mile the fares are higher than in any European country, in the USA or in Japan.
But what are rail commuters paying for? Most of Railtrack's maintenance is now carried out by a plethora of private contractors including large companies like Balfour Beatty and GTRM which, in turn, subcontract their work to smaller contractors. There is little or no regulation and many of these subcontractors can only be described as cowboys. Only this and the general reduction in maintenance can account for the fact that last year, for instance, there was a 21% increase in broken rails.
As to rolling stock, in the three years before the sell-off, not a single engine or carriage was bought - and in order to maintain the BR fleet in good running order in this period it would have required the purchase of at least 300 vehicles.
The short period for which franchises were originally offered also showed cynicism on the part of the Tories. Privatisation, they said, would improve the service due to competition and the need to attract "customers". But they knew very well that no company would order new rolling stock, if its franchise was only going to last for five to seven years. Of course, as it turns out, the renewal of franchises is a mere formality. However, this has still not resulted in the upgrading of much of the service. Rolling stock which has been added in many cases has been "refurbished" old stock - leaving the old bodies and even the old suspension in place. In fact adding not very much more than a lick of paint. In one case carriages were even bought from a museum! The fact that slam-door trains are still in use on many lines is a safety travesty.
As to the regulation of safety - this was (and is) the worst farce of all. If the competition hailed by the Tories failed to bring about lower fares, it did cause increased traffic at peak times - to maximise income from fares. All the more so as Railtrack, which is in charge of vetting new services, has also an interest in ensuring that the number of services keeps increasing. There lies the cause of the present dangerous congestion of suburban lines in particular.
To pre-empt any risk of people pointing a finger at their greed, the companies have conspired with government officials to change the long-standing procedure which normally applies in case of a major accident. In the past, open enquiries had always been an immediate priority after an accident, so that any faults found could be quickly remedied to avoid a recurrence. Instead, the companies ensured that the criminal prosecution of drivers came first, before any investigation, let alone rectification of faults could be done. Scapegoating railway workers has therefore been common practice since privatisation, at least up until Ladbroke Grove.
The 1997 Southall crash already exposed fundamental safety failures. It was revealed that the driver of one of the trains involved had been pressured into taking his engine out despite a serious fault in its pilot ATP system - a kind of pressure which is generalised in the railways now, all the more so as there is a system of fines and compensation between Railtrack and the train companies in case of delays or cancellations.
More importantly what this crash showed was how the splitting up of the railway into so many different bits and pieces causes chaos. And not only because co-ordination between different parts of the system is so difficult to set up and can so easily break down, but also because in the event of an accident, who will take the blame? In the case of the Southall crash, should it be Great Western Trains, EWS which ran the freight train in conjunction with ARC Southern, the quarrying company, Railtrack, or the company which was currently carrying out work to upgrade the line for the Heathrow Express? As Peter Rayner, the former BR safety officer, sacked for his criticism of privatisation, said "Here we have one company running the track and signalling, another operating the passenger train which was leased from another, another company running the freight train and a myriad of other organisations involved.... It is a recipe for disaster".
In its campaign to blame drivers for the increasing number of "Spads" (signals passed at danger) - up 5% to 643 incidents a year, Railtrack published a report offering all sorts of figures designed to show that inexperienced drivers were the culprits. They would never admit that this was due to the poor state of track leading to many more signals on yellow or red, the lack of maintenance of signals themselves leading to faults, etc. In fact when the French instituted the fitting of their own version of ATP to all trains after a major accident in 1991, their Spads were "only" 100 that year and that was considered too many!
The truth is that when private companies took over the trains, one of the first things they did was cut the number of drivers. At the same time, their length of turns was increased in most companies (10 and 11 hour turns are common) and breaks reduced to the bare minimum, and only after five hours of driving. With no second man in the cab of high speed trains (they had already been dispensed with in the run-up to privatisation), and drivers under pressure to run the trains according to "performance targets", the consequences are obvious.
As for training, in the old British Rail days, when everything was under one roof, apprentice drivers would spend two or three years on the railways working their way up through the easier routes to the more difficult. After privatisation, because so few new drivers had been trained during the long run-up to the sell-off, companies shortened the period in which drivers were trained to 11 months. And there are no longer "easy routes" for HST drivers to learn on.
A long time ago, in fact when Marx was writing Capital in the mid-19th century, he included this little anecdote: "...three railway men are standing before a London coroner's jury - a guard, an engine driver, a signalman. A tremendous railway accident has hurried hundreds of passengers into another world. The negligence of the employee is the cause of the misfortune. They declare with one voice before the jury that ten or twelve years before, their labour only lasted eight hours a-day. During the last five or six years it had been screwed up to 14, 18, and 20 hours, and under the specially severe pressure of holiday- makers, at times of excursion trains, it often lasted for 40 or 50 hours without a break. They were ordinary men, not Cyclops. At a certain point, their labour power failed. Torpor seized them. Their brain ceased to think, their eyes to see. The thoroughly "respectable" British jurymen answered by a verdict that sent them to the next assizes on a charge of manslaughter, and in a gentle "rider" to their verdict, expressed the pious hope that the capitalistic magnates of the railways would, in future, be more extravagant in the purchase of a sufficient quantity of labour-power, and more "abstemious", more "self-denying", more "thrifty, in the draining of paid labour-power."
Then the railways were owned by private companies, like today. And though 40 and 50 hour shifts are fortunately unheard of these days, in all other respects, this echo from the past retains full relevance today.
Labour looks the other way
Of course the Labour government cannot be blamed for the privatisation of British Rail. However they should be blamed for their policy U-turn when it comes to their proclamations throughout the period of privatisation. In 1993 Prescott, as the RMT-sponsored transport spokesman for the Labour party, said at their annual conference: "Let me make it crystal clear that any privatisation of the railway system that does take place will, on the arrival of a Labour government, be quickly and effectively dealt with, with the full support of the community, and be returned to public ownership."
But once in office, Prescott had changed his mind: "The privatised railway is producing windfall profits for a few people as a result of the contracts awarded by the last government. There's nothing I can do about that."
Indeed, far from keeping any of their promises over the railways, Labour has backed down all the way in front of the profiteers. This policy is all the more scandalous, in the light of the chaotic and dangerous state of the railways today. Labour ministers may not be the original criminals but they are willing accomplices. Today, after the Southall and Paddington crashes and after two and a half years in office in which they could have acted to stop the criminal greed of the profiteers, they too have blood on their hands.
Particularly shocking just after the obvious culpability of Railtrack had been exposed by the Paddington crash, was the announcement by Prescott that Railtrack's bid to take over a section of the overground track of the London Underground was to go ahead!
So far, all that Labour has done is to set up a "Strategic Rail Authority", but this is in fact all that their actual election manifesto commitment amounted to. This authority, under a highly paid bureaucrat "Sir" Alastair Morton, is supposed to act as an "improved" railways watchdog, while lawyer Tom Winsor has been appointed to act as a new "Rail Regulator". He apparently has enhanced powers over the franchisees and Railtrack. However since their appointment, these new quango-men have done absolutely nothing to ensure that the fundamental safety and investment issues are addressed.
In the aftermath of the Paddington accident one of Prescott's first responses - after promising for the second time that ATP would be brought in, no matter at what cost and to whom - was to assert that drivers passing signals at danger would no longer be tolerated and would be sent for immediate retraining! If that is not evading the issue and looking for scapegoats once more, what is it? But as for placing an obligation on companies to put a second driver in the cab of every train, particularly HSTs, as an immediate measure that could help prevent accidents until the safety systems are fitted, no, that would hit company profits...
In fact it now appears that Prescott has not given up on his cheap TPWS option at all, despite what he has just promised on ATP. He set up not one, but two, enquiries after Paddington. The first, under Lord Cullen is to look into the crash itself and the other to examine the "possible" introduction of ATP nationally! The cheaper, and less effective option of TPWS is to go ahead in the meantime, over the next four years, and ATP is by no means a definite commitment!
Of course Railtracks's safety role has been under consideration for some time - even prior to the Paddington crash. An independent rail authority was mooted, to act as a back-up to the HSE. An interim report by the HSE, however, decided against any immediate change to Railtrack's role in setting its own safety standards and those of the companies operating on its track. Now it remains to be seen whether a new safety body for the railways will be set up, as the post-Paddington statements of Prescott suggested. For the time being though, the status quo prevails, leaving Railtrack free to risk passengers' and workers' lives with very little control.
But even if Railtrack was deprived of its safety role to the benefit of the HSE, would it really make things better? The HSE has been so unde-resourced over the years that it has amounted to little more than a band of "yes-men" to government and private industry. Last year, the HSE brought a prosecution over just one rail accident, when the number of "significant" accidents increased by 15%, to 104! But in this same year, 304 people died in railway related incidents - collisions, level-crossing accidents, falls and suicides. There were, in fact, 120 collisions and 119 derailments. Does it mean that all these deaths and accidents were "normal" in the HSE's view?
Renationalisation or expropriation?
As the Guardian/ICM opinion poll showed, the majority of the population would be in favour of the renationalisation of the railways. Railtrack has even tried to pre-empt a political backlash over this by suggesting that the government would be welcome to "buy back" 15% of the company as a means of helping with the cost of the new safety systems, whether ATP or TPWS. And the worst thing about this is that it may well be the method finally chosen by Blair to fork out yet more public subsidies to the railway sharks!
Of course the government has rejected renationalisation out of hand. It would be too expensive, they say. However the truth is that the private funds originally invested at the time of privatisation have already more than refunded by the state.
In actual fact, from very small initial capital investments, the first franchisees went on to rake in fortunes. With such generous government subsidies ear-marked for at least the first seven years of franchises, this was understandable. By just increasing fares and squeezing the workforce - and of course not investing a penny - they made a killing. For instance, a 25% share of Thames Trains, was bought in October 1996 by five former BR managers. They paid a paltry £10,000 each. Just seventeen months later, Victory Railways, as they called themselves, announced a profit of £750,000 from the service (which had not improved) - but of course the taxpayer had subsidised this line alone to the tune of £18m. Victory sold their share to the bus group Go Ahead, for £6m. The five managers pocketed £875,000 each. There were many other cases of such incredible "good fortune". Great Western, with one of the worst records for punctuality, nevertheless recorded £5m profit and was bought out from its part ex-BR management consortium by First Group, also a bus company, for £105m (the taxpayer was subsiding this company with £50m a year) leaving the previous shareholders with millions to pocket. One of them, who chose to remain with GWT, was named in the attempted prosecution over the Southall crash last year. He was fined £1.5m, when he had already personally made £3m out of the company.
Roughly, privatisation was estimated to have cost around £2bn to the taxpayer. The total annual subsidy has been £1.8bn per year which makes £7.2bn over four years (though subsidies started for some companies before that). That makes a minimum of £9bn. Yet the total proceeds to the public purse from the sell-off were £5.3bn. In other words, privatisation has resulted in nearly £4bn being put straight into the pockets of the private sector!
So to be "fair", if anything, the private companies owe the government money and certainly do not deserve to be "bought out". This is why the case for a state takeover without compensation is an entirely valid one. But in addition, when lives are clearly at stake, as they are, then the case for renationalisation without compensation becomes overwhelming. It becomes a matter of the general interests of all those who work on the railways and all those who travel on them. And these definitely should outweigh the greed of a few thousand shareholders.
The lessons of past state ownership
State ownership, in and of itself does not, of course, guarantee an efficient and safe rail service. While there have been a number of serious crashes since privatisation, there were even worse ones in the years running up to it. In 1986, 11 passengers were killed; in 1987, 4; in 1988, at Clapham and Merseyside, 36 killed in total; in 1989, 7 people died in three serious accidents; in 1990, 6 people died in another three crashes; in 1991, 100 people were injured when two trains collided in a tunnel under the Severn river.
The railway was a nationalised state- run company for almost 50 years. But the problem is that it was always run on a shoe string. Wages were notoriously low. Trains were often late. The only reason railworkers remained "loyal" to British Rail was because for one thing they had free travel, and for another they had the possibility of moving around any and all jobs in the system, provided they could obtain the necessary training.
The first major assault on the system came in the early sixties, when the then Conservative government cut the railway system by one third after the recommendations of their Chairman of the British Railways Board, Dr Richard Beeching. In fact the railways went into steady decline after this, in terms of investment and services - the excuse being an increasing move to road transport - and this accelerated in the seventies.
This was because the state - under both Tory and Labour governments - refused to put the required funds in to modernise the railway. In fact BR had one of the lowest state subsidies as a percentage of gross domestic product in Europe. In 1986 this was less than half that spent by eight other European countries and it had already fallen by a quarter since 1979. Small wonder BR had a reputation for its quaint "old fashioned" coaches and unreliability!
The idea that the railway was a "social" service and therefore was entitled to a high level of subsidy because many lines could not finance themselves via fares - the so-called Public Service Obligation, or PSO - was put into question by the Tory government in 1986 and they decided to cut this PSO payment by 25%. But they also limited the amount that BR could borrow via an External Financing Limit, as well as controlling any investments made. And of course cutting the PSO implied cutting the railway, which was done, as mentioned above.
It should be remembered that the Clapham accident took place not under privatisation, but six years before the sell-off. It was the government of the day, along with BR management which decided that ATP was "too expensive". Indeed it is estimated that ATP would have prevented 61 accidents in the 30 years up to 1994, when privatisation began. A total of 80 people were killed in these accidents and 2,468 were injured.
So what would protect the travelling public and railworkers from such risks, from cost-cutting and from poor organisation and management, if the state took over again? For one thing by making it perfectly normal for railworkers to expose each and every breach of safety publicly and have the means to address these breaches. Up to now it has been a sackable offence to blow the whistle on Railtrack or any train company. And neither will Prescott's latest endorsement of whistle-blowing do the trick, with its planned "confidential hot line".
In this respect, the courts' decision to issue an injunction against RMT guards who had balloted for taking strike action over changes in safety procedures decided by Railtrack - which they considered unsafe - demonstrates the hypocrisy of all those in authority who are producing so much hot air about safety today. For once that railway workers were challenging a private company's right to put safety at risk, they were prevented from doing so - precisely to avoid denting these companies' profits. But there can be no safety without cost and if the railway companies do not want to pay, they should not run a railway!
Exposing the criminal doings of private profiteers or government appointed cost-cutters, safety defects and other failings, should be as public as possible in order to be effective. Those who are exposed should have no other option but to act. Likewise for the HSE. Its inspectors may be very well-meaning, but there is nothing to guarantee that they will be instructed to investigate and then allowed to take action, unless the scandal has become so public that doing otherwise would be putting the credibility of the HSE itself at risk. The point is not to give protection to whistle-blowers, as if they were doing something shameful, that requires anonymity. On the contrary, it is necessary to assert proudly the right, and the duty, of the population in general, and railway workers in particular, to exercise in this way control over the running of the railway for the benefit of all.
Society has no need for a jumped-up lawyer or a "Sir" somebody or other who travels to meetings on rail safety in his chauffeur-driven Volvo... But it does need the active contribution of the workers who run the railways and the commuters who use them, in order to ensure that the necessary resources are put in where and when they are needed to avoid more catastrophes such as Paddington.
Nor can society afford to allow the railway sharks to carry on milking public funds under the pretext of managing the railways. They should be expropriated, now and without compensation!
31 October 1999