Rail: A workers' and passengers' plan

Submitted by Matthew on 19 March, 2014 - 10:51

An extract from Janine Booth’s book, Plundering London Underground: New Labour, private capital and public transport 1997-2010.


London Underground must provide services to meet people’s needs, so its operation and development must be planned. The PPP showed, as private ownership had shown more than half a century earlier, that the “market” cannot meet London Underground’s needs. …

Workers and passengers have a common interest in London Underground providing as good a public service as possible (I include in the scope of “passengers” those who wish to be passengers but are currently excluded — those who would travel by Tube if it were cheaper, more physically accessible, and if it served the areas they travel to and from). Passengers want a service that is reliable, safe and accessible. Many of London’s workers travel to work by Tube, and London Underground workers have the knowledge of how to make the system work to its maximum effectiveness. Both groups are motivated by improving London Underground, neither by accumulating private profit.

To draw up and carry out their plan, the first thing our workers’ and passengers’ governing body would need is full access to London Underground’s financial information. The PPP and other private schemes kept finances shrouded from public scrutiny. Metronet refused to divulge its financial information. The cap on Alstom plc’s penalties is “commercially confidential”. RMT obtained a copy of the London Underground power PFI contract, only to find that the entire section on finance was redacted — hidden behind blocks of black ink…

To plan London Underground’s future direction, we need full public access to, and scrutiny of, its finances and structures. That way, a democratically-run Underground can identify how much funding it needs, and can identify waste which can be eliminated — money draining away from Tube services into private companies’ profits, excessive salaries for top managers, or duplication and bureaucracy caused by sub-dividing London Underground’s functioning. As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky advocated in his Transitional Programme in 1938: “The abolition of ‘business secrets’ is the first step toward actual control of industry … transport should be placed under an observation glass.”

Alongside political and industrial democracy, this openness and scrutiny will allow knowledge of London Underground’s operation to spread among workers and passengers, enabling the working class to apply that understanding collectively to the running of the Tube. Already, many Londoners — frustrated by the Underground’s shortcomings, or imagining a better transport system serving a better city — find themselves saying, “If we ran the Tube…”

What might workers and passengers plan? Large-scale investment to upgrade the Underground; significant cuts in fares; expansion of the network with new and extended lines; enough staff to run the system effectively; better safety standards; new technology designed to be used by staff rather than to replace them; prompt repairs.

A Workers’ and Passengers’ Plan could organise those projects currently in the pipeline (such as Crossrail 2; extensions to the Bakerloo, Northern and Central lines) and those that ought to be (making the entire network fully accessible to disabled people). The Plan could prioritise those projects that better serve working-class communities rather than jumping to the dog-whistle of big business’ latest luxury location. It could plan effectively for London’s expected population growth.

Moreover, London Underground is a good candidate for “public works” designed to both improve services and create jobs: to revive the economy at a time of recession. Under pressure of working-class demands, governments in the 1920s and 1930s did this — why not now? New work could be carried out by a TfL Major Works Department, with secure, directly-employed jobs and apprenticeships for young Londoners.

London Underground needs a Workers’ and Passengers’ Plan, drawn up and overseen by a democratically-elected governing body of workers, passengers and the community. This would lead to significant improvements in Underground services. It would also see a seismic shift in power towards the class of people who travel, rely and work on the Tube and away from the class that uses it merely as a source of profit. A Workers’ and Passengers’ Plan would be a popular democratic exercise which would massively extend the debate about London Underground’s future, and would turn working-class people into decision-makers not just service users or wage slaves…

If workers and passengers are to run London Underground, then workers and passengers must lead the campaign to achieve this policy. Those who currently control London Underground, and extract profit from it, will not willingly give up the reins. The Underground trade unions need to unite and organise an effective battle, alongside service users and as part of the working-class movement. We can devise this campaign by learning from both the strengths and the flaws of the fight against the PPP. It needs to be active, rank-and-file-led, militant and outward-looking. And it needs to put its faith in our own self-organisation. Genuine allies are welcome, but we learned from bitter experience that we cannot rely on political opportunists or quangos.

It was New Labour’s retreat from working-class and socialist policy that brought about the calamitous PPP. A return to these things can begin to save it. We need a more rational way of organising London Underground, as part of a more rational way of organising society.

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