Broken Connections

By Kenn Taylor

There have been many eulogies made over the years about the work of dockers, shipbuilders, miners, fishermen and others, about the times when work was more than a job, it was a way of life that helped define you. Much less has been created about railway workers though. This despite the fact that the old LMS Railway alone once employed a staggering 263,000 people and that working on the railway was as much as a way of life, if not more so, than in any other industry.

This is perhaps due to the fact that any interest in railways is negatively associated with ‘trainspotters’, but that is to not acknowledge that working on the railways is very different to being a railway enthusiast, even if the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Geography also plays a key part. Although there were ‘railway towns’ Derby, Crewe, Doncaster, Shildon and others, the railway, of course, branched out across the country and there was no definite geographical tie to the industry. There were railway people in every town, from the great workshops to the smallest village station and most felt part of that very big network. The Station Master in Kirkcaldy was connected to the Patternmaker in Crewe and the Clerk in Euston.

Railway workers were also generally less radical and militant than those in other industries, making them less noticeable to those in the arts and media. This was because although railway work was often poorly paid, dirty and dangerous, it was also usually secure, a true ‘job for life’ where you could start as an engine cleaner and work your way up to foreman. It was also an industry were workers had, to a degree at least, autonomy, able to move around the yard or station rather than be tied to a production line.

Safety too was important. Deaths of railway workers were, and continue to be, high, due to the nature of the railway – heavy and fast – forces that tend to be negative towards human life. While passenger safety, usually more of a priority for those running railways, was also always a concern uppermost in the minds of railway workers, even if customer service wasn’t. Nothing works on the railway unless everyone works together, and this awareness of the important nature of even the smallest task further helped to bond those working on it together.

And that is perhaps the key to life on the railway. There was the feeling of being part of a great big thing, a service, and an essential network that connected everything in the country; taking the coal of Yorkshire to the steelworks of Teesside and the steel on to the shipyards of Newcastle. And the ship-owner from London to Newcastle and the workers in each of these industries home for the day and to the seaside on high days and holidays. The railway connected things and people and to work on the railway was to be part of that vital connection.

Then came privatisation.

In the mid 1990s the railway was broken up into different competing businesses. Train operators were separated from owning trains, owning trains was separated from maintaining trains, track owning was separated from track maintenance, and ultimately, track was separated from trains. In short, the network ceased to be a network in the real sense. This system was chosen, not for its efficiency, but for its ability to make a quick profit for those involved and left a legacy which everyone else will have to pay the price for, for many decades to come.

And so the bus companies and others bought into the railway. The trains become a rainbow of different colours, often better to be fair than the drab hues of nationalised British Rail. The uniforms got better, and maybe even the staff smiled a bit more, training drummed into them by ‘customer service’ coaches.

Yet these ‘improvements’ on the railway mirrored the ‘improvements’ in Britain over the last 30 years. While on the surface things seemed to be getting better, Costa Coffee’s luxuriant muffins replacing the grim curled sandwiches of the Travellers Fare Buffet, underneath, the real business of the railway, the business of fishplates and electrical switchgear and ton upon ton of grease, a world dirty, unglamorous and technical, was in decline.

Areas of the railway which would have once worked together for mutual benefits now fought each other to improve their own balance sheet. As branding and margins and customer service became the priority, underneath the decay continued. The net result was a more inefficient, more unreliable, more expensive railway that became the laughing-stock of the world. Even allowing for inflation, the taxpayer now subsidies the private railway companies far more than it ever did British Rail. Much worse than that though, with safety given over to profit, with skilled staff replaced by cheaper inexperienced people on short-term contracts, with corners cut and deadlines squeezed to save money, rail accidents and passenger deaths increased. That is the reality of the privatised railway.

The effect of privatisation on railway people was largely the same too. No longer part of a great unified network, something bigger than themselves individually, they are instead separated. Now an employee of a global bus corporation, or a Canadian train manufacturer, or a government Qunago or a national civil engineering PLC, companies all allegedly working together to make trains run but all vying ruthlessly for their own interests. Yet, despite all of this, as recent trade union action has seen, railway workers retain a little more unity than in many other industries. The necessary skills and inevitable interactions of railway workers have kept some sense of togetherness, despite the all the forces working against it.

The current government is mostly concerned with reducing the cost of the railway. That doesn’t give much faith that rail transport will improve in the UK anytime soon. Even if it does, it will never be as good as in the likes of Japan or France, countries where people realise the need of co-operation, long-term planning and investment now for benefits later, things that the UK seems incapable of. As long as the selfish, short-term, profit-obsessed culture continues in the UK, we will not only have a terrible railway, but we will have a terrible society and a weak economy. Only if we can re-establish our broken connections, realise the need to work for something bigger than ourselves as individuals, will things ever improve.

This piece appeared in issue 19 of The Shrieking Violet in August 2012.