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Haines-Doran’s Derailed gives an excellent account of what’s wrong with the railways, and how trade unions and passengers can force change, finds Kevin Crane

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Tom Haines-Doran, Derailed: How to Fix Britain’s Broken Railways (Manchester University Press 2022), 208pp.

As the biggest transport strike of a generation rages, involving not only the largest sheer number of actual workers, but also a full house of the four trade unions in the sector, the associated propaganda war is also in full swing. So far, the workers are doing well on that front: RMT leaders Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey have been the surprise media stars of the summer, public support for the strikers has been strong, and the attempt by the Labour Party’s right-wing leadership to ban MPs from attending picket lines has resulted in open defiance.

The Tories are on the back foot in the battle for hearts and minds. The transport minister, Grant Shapps, is determined to enforce a programme of job cuts and sacrifices of pay, terms and conditions. To support this, he is desperately falling back on a single word he can barely seem to define: ‘modernisation’. The Tory narrative is that the unions are responsible for a railway system that is well known to be in poor condition. For socialists, having a counter-narrative to this is absolutely crucial. We can therefore be thoroughly pleased that this useful little book has been written.

Tom Haines-Doran manages to distil years’ worth of his research into the history, economy, and politics of the British rail system into a neat digestible narrative, by using the ingenious framing of an actual discussion he got into with a group of fellow passengers one night on a delayed train. Its five chapters are simply the answers to the questions they put to him about the cost, the unreliability, the industrial strife, the confusing management, and the potential future of the trains. By answering each of those questions, he provides a comprehensive short course on what the problems and solutions for rail actually are.

Privatisation and profits

Explaining how rail in Britain is run is difficult on purpose. Since the publicly owned British Rail was privatised in the 1990s, a bewildering array of companies and consortia have been established to take its place. The Tories had numerous hopes for privatisation: chiefly that rail would operate at a profit, weaken the unions, and allow the running of rail to be left to market forces. Even on their own terms, privatisation has failed since none of these has been achieved.

Haines-Doran shows that the most basic objective, profitability, is also the most basic reason why their model doesn’t work. No rail transport system in the world actually runs without support from the state: the justification to provide that support is because of the vast benefit and utility of rail services. At no point during the last three decades have the private companies been able to both turn profits and meet their operational and safety requirements. Indeed, many elements – most spectacularly and tragically the private infrastructure company Rail Track – basically failed altogether and have had to be replaced with entities that more-or-less only pretend to be private companies.

The business interests in the system have to get cash for the shareholders, though, otherwise there’d be no point. So they simply do this by extracting large mark-ups from the various layers of private companies supplying each other with such elements that they control. That’s really where most of those enormous ticket prices you pay end up. Privatisation has also had a hilariously ironic effect on the governance of the system: the various companies are so unstable and unreliable that they are essentially micromanaged by the Department for Transport. This means that the railways are, at all levels, far more directly controlled by national government (and non-technical politicians and civil servants) than British Rail was.

Trade unions and resistance

That direct control also leads to one of the most important details of the book: industrial relations and the role of the unions. Privatisation was, of course, intended to make it much harder for unions to organise. In reality, what they did was adapt, and this book gives a genuinely good account of how the RMT (the majority blue-collar union) and ASLEF (the specialist drivers’ union) both rose to the challenge of the private railway far more effectively than anyone had expected. Part of the issue has simply been staffing. All the private companies have tried to save money by simply having fewer workers, but this has meant that those workers have developed much more effective industrial organisation as a direct consequence of the tightness of staffing and worker availability.

The author further explains that a direct consequence of the fact that rail is loss making, is that there is a constant desire from the top – starting with government – to try and save on the wage bill. Ultimately, the present dispute is the culmination of that situation: government is trying to cull jobs but disavow responsibility and say it is simply what the private companies need to do, despite all those companies operating under their de facto control.

Towards the book’s end, the author looks at some case studies of passenger activism, relating to the various issues of high fares, woeful reliability, and unjust ticket enforcement. He argues persuasively that alliances between organised groups of passengers and the unions are absolutely crucial to making real change happen. These parts are useful practically, and complement the good background the earlier sections provide. The issue of buses also comes up here, as although we tend to think of rail and buses as quite separate historically, the future is that these services will have to be increasingly joined-up.

Derailed is, in short, an indispensable read for anyone with even a passing interest in the railways, either as a passenger or member of staff. I hope that both unions and passengers’ groups take notice of it. It can inform the movement well for the next stages of the struggle to get the public-transport system we so urgently need.

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