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From: The Socialist issue 255, 24 May 2002: Take Back Rail

Search site for keywords: Rail - Privatisation - Workers - Jarvis - Transport - Balfour Beatty - Hatfield

Rail privatisation exposed

"If It Costs Money It Just Gets Ignored"

THE DIRE effects of privatisation aren't just felt in the maintenance of the railway track. An engineer explained to The Socialist what it's like working on train maintenance for the privatised railways.

"THE INDUSTRY isn't run for the good of the passengers or to provide a service, it's just there to make profits. If it costs money to do anything then it just gets ignored.

We get 18 trains to do in a night, there's a lot of work on them but you just haven't got the time. You do whatever you can but everything else just gets left.

Before privatisation you used to be able to take a whole train out of service and have it in the workshops for a week so you could do it thoroughly. Then they used to rotate the sets (whole inter city trains).

Now they don't want to do that. While a set's just stood it's not making money. So everything is rushed.

We're doing the minimum they can get away with. We're under pressure all the time. All they talk about is sales. Unbelievably you have to sell stuff.

They charge for our labour but they want us to find things wrong so they can sell new stuff - like a new mirror on the wall or a battery charger. Anything they can make money out of.

There's not enough hours in the day to do properly planned maintenance - we can't believe that hasn't been picked up by any auditors. You have different types of examinations come in for the set - like different levels of servicing on a car. Say one should take 23 hours.

But you only have eight workers in a team and you might get five or six of these in a night, plus you've 12 other sets coming in for other jobs.

We've got all these sets and we haven't got the workers to do them yet the company still charges people like GNER for that service. I don't know how they get away with it.

Without us the company couldn't function but we're the ones who get the worse pay and the worse conditions. We work three weeks out of six as nights and work holidays and weekends. I'm skilled and getting 23,000 a year - for twelve-hour nights, including Saturday and Sunday nights.

The whole system needs renationalising."

Cutting Corners On The Track

THE PRIVATE contractor responsible for repairing tracks on the railway line around Potters Bar, Jarvis plc, are still trying to claim that it was 'sabotage' that caused the crash on 10 May.

Roger Shrives

Jarvis's claim was made to the London Stock Exchange to try to halt the firm's shares sliding. Even the police set no store by such sabotage claims - privatised firms' whole record is one of cutting corners.

In April 2001 Jarvis took over responsibility from Balfour Beatty, just months after the Hatfield crash when, it seems, Balfour Beatty knew of broken rails on the line around Hatfield four months before the crash but didn't repair them. The Daily Mirror (20 May) reports on at least 30 faults on a single ten-mile section of track maintained by Balfour Beatty between Liverpool Street and Colchester.

But Jarvis's record is no better. Just six days before the Potters Bar crash, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) successfully prosecuted Jarvis for "unsafe practice during railway maintenance work," after an engineering train nearly ran over track workers in the Midlands.

The HSE prosecutor said that: "The company's failure to manage the arrangements properly led to people who were not competent being expected to do jobs they were not able to discharge properly."

Jarvis has been fined for many accidents including two derailments in 1999 and for having too few staff working on the track. It has increased the number of SPADS (signals passed at danger) by its engineering trains.

Despite this Network Rail, New Labour's replacement for Railtrack, has made Jarvis its technical adviser on safety issues. Labour transport secretary Byers has also let Jarvis, as part of the Tube Line consortium, take over running the infrastructure of the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines.

Jarvis was a small construction firm until it made its cash from the widespread privatisations across western Europe.

It is responsible for maintaining 4,700 miles of track, making it Britain's biggest rail maintenance firm. It also has contracts for managing premises for schools, universities and hospitals, and has fingers in many different pies under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

Last year Jarvis made 17.7 million profit. Its board of directors is crammed with barristers, brokers and accountants - its only member with British rail experience pre-Jarvis is a personnel manager who was "heavily involved in the privatisation process".

Many other firms have comparably poor records of safety and reliability.

The real contradiction is for any private firm to be responsible for maintaining a public service.

Workers Control

THE CALL for renationalisation of the railway system gets a lot of support from the travelling public and particularly from railway workers.

Alison Hill

The Socialist Party energetically campaigns around this demand but we call for renationalisation under democratic workers' control and management. This is the only way a safe and efficient railway system, part of an integrated public transport system, can be guaranteed in the long term.

No one should look too fondly at British Rail's past but at least there was one organisation in charge of train services, the track and other infrastructure.

Indeed in the aftermath of the Potters Bar crash, Railtrack bosses are reported to be considering taking responsibility for engineering quality, track inspection and maintenance supervision away from its contractors.

Transport secretary Stephen Byers has told the train drivers' union Aslef's national conference that: "A new relationship is needed with contractors, based on best value, not lowest cost... that puts the interests of the travelling public first."

Even they can now see the fatal consequences of splitting up functions between a whole range of companies who consult the balance sheet before the safety procedures. But without the active participation of the workers involved in the industry at all levels, maintenance and safety standards can only be maintained in a bureaucratic way.

Any complex engineering function, like building and maintaining a railway system, not only needs skilled engineers but also people who design and execute systems to make sure the safest procedures are used.

In a capitalist firm, the bosses pay specially trained engineers to do this, giving them the power to reject work. This costs the company money but it will protect the company's reputation for safety and quality in the long run.

In the most effective systems, those people are held personally responsible for any subsequent errors. In a recent case, at Maidstone Crown Court, an engineer was jailed for eight months for authorising a weld on a helicopter which subsequently crashed, killing three people. Interestingly it was the engineer who went to jail, not the welder.

But competition, (including, it seems, competitive tendering), constantly undermines quality control under capitalism due to cost cutting. And it seems it is these mechanisms for checking, inspecting, quality control and auditing which have been cut on the railways.

Nationalisation under democratic workers' control and management would mean workers at all levels would have the time and training to ensure safe practices.

In the wild west environment of New Labour's drive for privatisation, more disasters like Potters Bar are inevitable. Only democratic workers' control and management can repair the damage of the past and build a safe and efficient public transport system.

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