Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 48 Number 18, June 16, 2018 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

"Meltdown Monday" on the Railways Exposes the Wrecking of Public Authority

Striking railway workers at Newcastle central station this month

A thorough breakdown in communication and cohesion brought new crisis to the railways on May 21, on what has become known as "Meltdown Monday". This day saw new timetables come into force across the network. The result was fiasco, with a huge number of services suffering delays and cancellations. People were left standing on platforms waiting for trains that didn't arrive, unable to get to work or travel to school.

The RMT union's reckoning was that, at one point, nearly one in ten Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) trains were either cancelled or more than half an hour late, affecting half a million commuters. GTR runs services in the South East such as Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and the Gatwick Express trains. Northern, which runs services across North of England from Newcastle to Nottingham and in Greater Manchester, Yorkshire, Cumbria and Merseyside, was even worse: one in six trains were cancelled or over 30 minutes late.

The "meltdown" is symptomatic of the privatisation that has resulted in key infrastructure being run by competing private interests and not in the public interest. This has fragmented the rail system and destroyed its coherence, a situation that has long been predicted by workers across the rail industry and their unions.

The rail system was privatised as part of the state giving up its role as having responsibility to provide this infrastructure and instead to pass control to competing private monopolies. Privatisation broke up the state-organised and controlled rail network and farmed it out to competing businesses as a source of capitalist profit. It was part of the wrecking of the public authority and the politicisation of private interests in the early period of the anti-social offensive against the old social democratic arrangements.

The ensuing incoherence has reached crisis point. Theresa May, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and all of the neo-liberals in Parliament are angered and frustrated at the failure; the results they had wished for over many years of privatisation in the railway system are collapsing, no matter what they say and do; there is a madness beyond their control in the breakdown of authority.

What Was Said

The Prime Minister called the disruption to rail journeys "absolutely unacceptable" and declared it "vital for the Government to get to grips with the problem". Michael Fallon, who was Defence Secretary until his resignation last year, echoed this in telling Grayling to "get a grip" on the situation he branded a scandal. But the destruction of the public authority is such that nothing remains but its police powers. So nothing can be done other than this call to "get a grip", which is effectively a call to strengthen these powers.

Theresa May is reported to have ordered the Office of Rail and Road to make an "inquiry" into the implementation of timetable changes so that the "misery currently being endured by the public never happens again".

Chris Grayling himself was not accepting this criticism. He at first singled out Northern and GTR and told the House of Commons that the rail industry had "collectively failed to deliver for the passengers it serves".

"Network Rail finalised the timetable much too late and GTR and Northern were not prepared to manage the timetable change and did not raise a warning that they were not prepared," he said.

"The key priority now is working with the train companies so they can restore a stable service for passengers," he concluded, in a shameless declaration of the vacuousness of the public authority.

In a joint statement, Network Rail, GTR and Northern for their part blamed the fiasco on the "biggest modernisation of the railways since the Victorian era". They apologised for the chaos, citing delayed engineering works and a shortage of trained drivers.

"The Government must take urgent action to fix the travel chaos," said Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour said Grayling had failed in his responsibility and should resign, while opposition parties urged him to "fall on his sword". Labour's Lilian Greenwood, Chairwoman of the Transport Committee, said Network Rail and the rail operators had "undoubtedly failed dismally".

Labour's transport spokesman Andy McDonald said nobody would take responsibility for the rail industry, but that Grayling was "ultimately responsible" for ensuring the companies fulfilled their contracts. "He might want to blame Network Rail but he has failed in his responsibility to oversee it... the buck stops with him," he said.

The RMT also called on the Transport Secretary to resign. "Chris Grayling should get out, the private companies he is propping up should be sacked and the vital rail services the nation depends on should be returned to public ownership," the RMT general secretary, Mick Cash, said. "Meanwhile my members, working at the sharp end of the cancelled and delayed services, are bearing the brunt of the public anger without a shred of support from Govia, Arriva or the Department for Transport," he added.

Furious passengers launched a petition calling on the government to immediately cancel GTR's contract, which has over 17,000 signatures at the time of writing. Others referred to the whole scenario as a tragi-comedy and said that the "delays are a joke". Stephen Trigg, of the Reigate, Redhill and District Rail Users Association, said: "Thameslink is just failing all over the place... 6 out of 12 trains have disappeared from the timetable. That's before any cancellations. How do people get to work?"

What Must Be Done

The crisis exposes the lack of public authority in the public interest. The issue is posing itself in a straightforward practical sense, as an integrated rail system operating across fragmented privately-competing parts has reached the point of a sheer inability to function properly given the demands of a modern socialised economy.

This cannot be done either within the status quo or by returning to the old social-democratic arrangements, since the basis of those arrangements, civil society, is in tatters, and all that remains of public authority is arbitrary power wielded on behalf of powerful private competing monopoly interests.

Therefore the authority needs to be of a new kind, based on a new set of political arrangements consistent with democratic renewal. There is a need to establish a new authority consistent with the needs of the times.

What is needed today is a look at how authority and control needs to change. How can decision-making pass to the people who work in the railway network so that it is cohesive, based on the common public interest and not competing private interests.

Arrangements must be brought into being which favour the peoples, not the financial oligarchs, the monopolies whose rule is tearing apart society's social programmes and infrastructure.


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