British Rail Privatisation: what it means and why it happened

Submitted by Janine on 20 July, 2004 - 12:00

British Rail privatisation is the most unpopular government policy in a generation. Opinion polls repeatedly show that around three-quarters of the UK population want the whole railway industry brought back into public ownership immediately.

That is not surprising. Dozens of people died at Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar in crashes that can be directly attributed to privatisation. The service has worsened whilst prices have risen. And just to rub people's noses in it, fat cat rail company directors have paid themselves huge bonuses.

But behind the headlines, what has life been like for mainline railway workers, in particular for those working on the track? Here is the story from someone working on the frontline, together with his assessment as to where it all went wrong ...



Since privatisation, we have seen the widespread introduction of agency staff working for companies which are famous for their cavalier attitude to safety; to their own staff, of the staff they work with, and also the safety of the travelling public. As track workers we have had reports of sub-contractors working 12 hours on one site and then coming to work on our sites as lookouts. At the same time, employers have driven down conditions on sick and holiday pay.

When privatisation happened, many staff were encouraged to leave the railway. These were the old guard who knew their terms and conditions inside out. With them out of the way, it was easier to exploit the failings of the union nationally.

This also led to a massive skills shortage which agencies have exploited to make fat profits at the expense of the taxpayer.

New starters would think twice about a career on the engineering side as many things have been lost. Not least the loss of privilege travel facility, which is a major cause of grievance. As is the closure of the final salary pension scheme, which has been replaced with a vastly inferior money purchase scheme.

Huge variations in rates of pay have led to high rates of staff turnover. Why stay with a company when one ten miles away is paying £4,000pa more for the same job? This has also made companies think twice about training. Why train somebody who is going to leave? Some companies are even insisting that you pay for your own training or pay if you leave inside a certain time.

Boundaries and responsibility are now an everyday problem. In the past if a fault occurred then the nearest staff would attend. Now, even though you are stood 50 yards away, it is left to the relevant company, whose staff who may be 30 miles away.

We are also expected to do other departments' jobs. The most obvious is, on the surface railway, the operation of isolation switches for the overhead power lines. But it also includes bridge inspection after a bridge has been struck.



In 1983, Sid Weighell's resignation as National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) General Secretary caught the fledgling broad left on the hop. The basics were: do we support an electable centre left candidate, or stand our own candidate? The outcome was support for Jimmy Knapp and his subsequent election.

We then had a period of 'new realism' in the wider trade union movement, a time when we, the workers, were advised to keep our heads down until 'better times' ie. the election of a Labour government.

Fast forward to 1992 - Maggie Thatcher had been deposed and John Major was selected to be the scapegoat who lost the election. Major's big pledge was further privatisation including the railway. This was seen by many as a privatisation too far. The general consensus of the trade union leadership was that the Labour Party was going to win the 1992 General Election and that it would stop the privatisation.

But the Conservatives won. After the surprise success of John Major, the shock was palpable. I was working in Wimbledon at that time, and on the morning after the election the feeling in the depot was one of deep despair.

At this point there was still time to organise a successful fight against privatisation. The plan for privatisation had still a long journey to make and this was a gap which could have been successfully exploited.

But the unions failed to learn that they should not rely on Parliament. They simply tweaked their policy from waiting for Labour to hoping for a Tory backbench revolt. Predictably, this delivered nothing.



There seemed to be a 'head in the sand' attitude. This inaction left the whole membership with no clear lead. Indeed, the response from the unions seemed to be one of keep quiet and hope it goes away!

A political campaign only stood any chance of success if we fought industrially too. There were several opportunities for strike action to derail privatisation, but each one was squandered.

In 1993, RMT balloted over pay, opposing the imposition of the government's 1.5% public sector pay limit. The ballot was lost 60%:40%, as the other unions had already caved in and members had little faith in their leadership. In the same year, RMT had taken two days' strike action against redundancies. But then the union's right wing manoevred to get the action called off. A promised ballot over the future of the British Rail pension fund never happened.



As part of the preparation for privatisation, British Rail planned to stop its existing Promotion, Transfer, Resettlement and Redundancy (PT&R) arrangements from 4 April 1994, and replace it with a new, fragmented system. You would only have transfer rights within the particular section of the privatised railway that you worked on. It was a massive reduction in workers' options when jobs were 'reorganised' away - or when you simply wanted to change grade or move to a different part of the country.

It was also an opportunity to fight back against privatisation. The anti-union laws banned a strike straightforwardly against the sell-off, but allowed one on an industrial issue like this. And it was an issue which affected - and so could unite - rail workers of all grades. A decent fight over the PT&R could have spelt the end of privatisation.

So what did our unions do? ASLEF & TSSA accepted the new PT&R! It seems that they forgot that unions are supposed to defend their members' interests, not help management attack them.

RMT said that it would fight, and it held a ballot for strike action. But weak leadership and bad experiences meant that the members lacked confidence. As the bulletin Off the Rails said at the time, "There is still the problem of an air of resignation among railworkers. The talk is all about taking your money and getting out; we have lost too much and given in too often already on too many issues."

A real campaign from the union's head office could still have turned things around. But all we got was one letter. The strike ballot was lost: 10,193 voted Yes; 11,336 No.

Jimmy Knapp, elected a decade earlier as the 'left' candidate, had presided over the RMT's surrender to Tory privatisation.

With this final act of betrayal, the demoralisation of the rank and file seemed complete. There was no concerted action; the main concern of the leadership seemed to be securing the union's funds against 'political' strikes.



British Rail privatisation could have been stopped dead, but it required a sea change in attitude from the union leaderships to give confidence and form to a simmering resentment widespread in the whole of the industry.

The roots of our defeat were many, some rooted in the past from poor organisation of the left, others in our union leaderships' lack of vision and faith in the rank and file.

By the time we were transferred over to the myriad of private companies, any hope of a fight was gone.

This outcome was not pre-ordained. If there had been an active movement, self-organised, especially with the weakness of the Major government, then a fightback was possible and had every chance of success.

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