bring back british rail Fair Fares demonstration in 2011. Photo: Flickr/Ben Soffa

Counterfire talks to Alex Gordon from the RMT about the recent wave of industrial disputes in the railway industry

Counterfire: There are a number of industrial disputes taking place in the rail industry at the moment: at Southern Rail, Scotrail, Eurostar and Virgin East Coast, among others. What is the background to these disputes?

Alex Gordon: The Eurostar dispute is slightly separate, but for the others, the common issue at stake is that the private companies running passenger train franchises in Britain are under an onus from the Department for Transport to reduce their staffing costs. This goes back to a 2009 report commissioned under the last Labour Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis from a former airline industry executive, Sir Ray McNulty, who recommended cutting up to 40 percent of staff in parts of the rail industry in order to make it ‚more efficient’.

The real reason is that the economics of rail franchising aren‘t working. Successive government have been forced to bail out and effectively nationalise a number of private rail companies that went bust, amongst them East Coast Trains, one of the companies at the centre of the current disputes. McNulty was brought in to explain how the franchises could continue to run profitably, and his answer was: by employing fewer staff.

And that‘s why Southern Rail wants to get rid of conductors?

Yes. The newer trains are designed to operate with just one member of staff on board, a driver, who would replace the current staff working on the train. It has taken about five years for the technology that‘s required for this to be implemented, and now we are at the stage where the critical confrontation is taking place between the unions and the train operating companies.

So none of the disputes are taking place because the employers or the unions are acting independently – this is government policy, and the operating companies are directed from a central point in government. There is a determination to de-staff passenger rail companies in Britain.

So it‘s the Department for Transport telling the private companies how to make their business more profitable?

Essentially, yes. You have to understand the extremely irrational and complicated structure of rail privatisation. We went from one integrated nationalised industry under British Rail before 1994 to total fragmentation. We have now returned to a single entity that owns and maintains the railway infrastructure, i.e. tracks, signalling and so on, Network Rail. However, the franchising model requires this company – effectively although not officially a state-owned enterprise – to sell acccess to parts of its network to private train operators. These franchises are short-term leases of 5 to 10 years, and the owner of the franchise owns practically nothing apart from the right to employ the staff and exclusive rights to run train services and charge fares. Even their trains are mostly leased from so-called ‚rolling stock companies’ owned by global banks.

Railways are heavily capital-intensive, and require a big investment, and business cycles of longer than 5 or 10 years. So the private train companies have been reduced to mainly managing contracts for the government. They receive money from the state for running train services and take a slice of profits from the tickets sales.

Eurostar train managers, that is to say the guards, are going on strike tomorrow. What is the background to this dispute?

It‘s an argument that has been going on for years, connected to the unusual type of work that Eurostar train managers do. Often, London-based crews stay overnight in Lille or Paris, and French crews staying in London, so it‘s about ensuring that they have an adequate work-life balance.

Has the strike at Southern Rail received lots of support from commuters?

Passengers on Southern Rail have been organising protests against the company‘s shambolic service for the past 6 months. There is quite an active network of passenger groups and rail activists, some of them in close contact with the trade unions. We‘re had good relations with people who are organising the protests, they are not anti-union, although some of those quoted in the press are antagonistic towards us.

But the people organising the passanger protest are for the most part progressive. They understand that they‘re the ones being ripped off, and they see that railworkers are trying to deliver a safe and reliable service, but are being impeded by a shambolic management and a government department that‘s determinded to sabotage the current level of staffing and service in the rail sector.

How important is the fact that Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party for the confidence of rail workers?

I think there is definitely a rebellious mood. Having Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is very important for our members, as he has identified himself clearly with RMT’s long-held policy for renationalisation of the rail industry. Our members who are taking strike action over the next few weeks know that the real solution to the attacks on jobs is not going to come purely through industrial action. There is no strike, however long, that is going to solve the problem of attacks on staffing levels in and of itself, because the issue at root is not a contractual problem between employers and staff. The problem is a political one, and it requires a political solution.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

It requires a party that is able to take state power and change the policy that‘s been dictated by the Department for Transport of cutting jobs and services. This is where Jeremy Corbyn really holds the key to a good future for rail workers and rail users for a decent and safe rail system. At the next election, Jeremy Corbyn will make a simple pitch to renationalise the railways and stop the profit-taking that‘s been going on.

Alex Gordon is a former President of the RMT.