Issue 236 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1999 Copyright Socialist Review


Signals that were set at danger

The Paddington crash has put New Labour under intense political pressure but the Health and Safety Executive's Railway Inspectorate (HMRI) is also feeling the heat.

The Railway (Safety Case) Regulations 1994 are central to the legal framework put together to underpin rail privatisation. They require Railtrack and the train operating companies to demonstrate that they can operate safely. This is done by each of them producing and having accepted a Railway Safety Case. The Paddington crash shows that this regulatory system has failed dismally. It is no secret that the HSE has been unhappy with safety on the railways. But the level of enforcement has been pitiful. The HSE moved quickly after the crash, issuing a prohibition notice on signal SN109 and an improvement notice requiring Railtrack to install additional controls at 22 other signals. They could do this because they knew about these danger spots long before Paddington, but the HSE did not have to wait for a disaster before acting.

The Clapham inquiry recommended fitting Automatic Train Protection and the designer of the new track layout at Paddington assumed ATP would be in operation. The HSE approved Railtrack's Safety Cases, ignoring the warnings. The HSE went along with Railtrack's analysis which 'proved' that ATP was too expensive--BR privatisation was being implemented and the HSE, a government department, could not scupper a major government policy. The HSE has been very careful to steer clear of any criticism of privatisation. It is a rail safety watchdog with no bite.

John Prescott had already launched a major review of the Health and Safety at Work Act. A new all powerful safety authority is being discussed to cover rail, air, sea and road (useful as New Labour tries to claim that safety will not be compromised in a privatised air traffic control system). But the HSE's powers were strong enough to prevent Paddington. The key problems remain a transport system run for profit and a government committed to the free market.
John Roberts
North London

  • As a railwayman, rail enthusiast and trade union activist, I have some comments to make on your article about rail safety (November SR).

    I believe the underlying claim that, as a mode of transport, rail is inherently unsafe is way off the mark. Despite the horrific accident at Paddington, rail travel is still the safest form of land travel by far.

    This is in no way a defence of rail privatisation, which has been a total and unmitigated disaster, as it was with the buses. It is more a defence of the workers of all grades who face the utmost pressures from management every day.

    The system developed by the Great Western Railway, Automatic Train Control (ATC), did not prevent trains passing stop signals at danger, but provided an audible warning to the driver at the distant signal on the approach to a stop signal. It was the system eventually adopted nationwide by British Rail--and still in use today--the Automatic Warning System (AWS).

    AWS was only introduced on Britain's main lines after the Harrow and Wealdstone accident in 1952 in which 112 people died.

    For the railway inspectorate to claim safety levels are poor is a bit rich when it turned a blind eye to Railtrack manning signal boxes with unqualified managers and supervisors during the signal workers' dispute in 1994: a total compromise of safety.

    The insurance underwriter who claimed that increased hours at work and more intensive duties for drivers were compromising safety is correct. These claims are now being echoed by Mick Rix, the Aslef general secretary, who, as part of the union's executive, accepted these deals in the first place! The union bureaucracy aided the privatised companies in boosting their profits.

    The facts are that the lessons of Clapham have not been learned. Automatic Train Protection (ATP) could and should have been installed in the intervening years. Of course, British Rail was starved by the Tories of the investment it required.

    Things are--and were--no better under both Old and New Labour. The money spent propping up the private companies should be invested by a publicly funded and accountable British Rail to modernise and electrify Britain's main lines, and install ATP to provide a truly safe rail system.
    David King
    Branch secretary Stirling No 1 RMT (personal capacity)

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    There is a fatal flaw in Chris Harman's article (October SR) on guerrilla wars. He only cites examples which bolster his case. He makes the underlying assumption that the final victory is simply determined by military might. But this has never been the socialist line. War is a continuation of politics by other means. The reason wars are fought, the manner in which they are conducted and the ultimate outcome is political--Clausewitz asserted that military grammar must always be subordinated to political logic.
    From Algeria to Cuba, Cyprus, Kenya and Vietnam, it is possible to give examples where poorly equipped and numerically weaker bands of guerrilla fighters vanquished the might of the imperial powers.
    I still vividly remember how that brilliant journalist, the late James Cameron, described the fall of Hanoi in 1955. The French colonial troops, clad in speckless uniforms and with their well polished weapons, marched through the capital in perfect order. They were defeated! Then enter the conquering heroes--the Vietminh, an odd assortment of individuals with an even odder assortment of ancient rifles, wearing tattered clothing, sauntering along to the acclaim of the populace.
    To take another example--Cuba--Castro began his invasion with only 81 supporters. Their vessel landed at the wrong place and a catalogue of catastrophes followed. Two years later, on the top of the Sierra Maestra, Castro addressed the remnant off his band. They were only 12 and they faced the dictator Batista's 50,000 troops, equipped with the most up to date American weapons. Castro's message was quite simple: we have them on the run. And Castro was correct!
    Why does Chris Harman think that this sort of strange thing could happen in countries like Vietnam and Cuba? Why could the anti-colonialist David beat the imperialist Goliath? I would suggest the decisive factor, in the last analysis, is not military but political. It is a struggle for hearts and minds. Is your will to win greater than that of your enemy? Guerrillas fighting against foreign domination are usually prepared to give whatever it takes, whereas soldiers fighting to maintain imperialist domination find their enthusiasm vanishes once they start to suffer setbacks.
    The same applied in Ireland during the Troubles of 1916-22. Though Britain had infinitely greater military power, eventually it had to concede independence to 26 of the 32 Irish counties. What now remains is the problem of the remaining six.
    Look at the situation from the ruling class standpoint. After 30 years of warfare, the Provisionals are as strong as--in fact stronger than--they were 30 years ago. The British authorities find themselves with an unending and unwinnable task.
    At the same time continued British rule leaves a dangerous minefield where explosions could happen at any time. A still greater nightmare for the British ruling class is the impact on the mainland. Why should British workers simultaneously suffer welfare and other cuts from Blair's government while their taxes help to preserve an everlasting subsidy to Ulster? A continuation of the status quo is liable to lead to still greater problems. The anger of thwarted Irish nationalists is liable to merge with that of British workers. It could occur on a much bigger scale than in the 1960s and 1970s, when Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann and others came over to this country to address mass protest meetings. Correctly, they told these large gatherings that the cause of British and Irish workers was the same.
    This is quite different to the message of Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams and co look to Washington for their salvation, not to the working class.
    International socialists need to both commend and criticise the Provisional IRA. In a superb way it has conducted the armed struggle against the imperialist invader for 30 years. Yet in that time it has never endeavoured to unite workers across the sectarian divide.
    Sinn Fein may secure its objective of a united Ireland--a united capitalist Ireland. But this will do nothing to abolish the gulf between rich and poor, the struggle between capitalists and workers. But I think we should take an entirely different position--that of James Connolly. He fought for a workers' republic not only in Britain but also in Ireland.
    Ray Challinor
    Whitley Bay


    The book review 'From Suffrage to Sedition' (November SR) encapsulated Mary Davis's book well. However, I don't think we can say Sylvia Pankhurst 'drifted away from revolutionary socialist organisation'. Pankhurst continued to organise politically following her expulsion from the Communist Party in 1921. Until 1924 she held to a clear Communist organisation and solution by joining the Communist Workers' International (KAI), which attempted to counter the reformism of the Communist Party. She also discerned a difference between socialism and nationalisation--understanding that one does not lead to the other.
    Reforms to her were simply a mechanism for the bourgeoisie to maintain and increase their hold over the working class. This was her point about the Labour Party, and the essence of her split with Lenin. She felt that Labour did no more than represent the interests of capital over labour. If we are to identify with Sylvia Pankhurst the revolutionary, we must recognise the tradition of which she is a part.
    Eric Karas


    Alex Ismail's letter (November SR) showed the size of the non-payment campaign nationally. There is an electric mood in the colleges at the moment. I'm writing this letter in the aftermath of an occupation at Oxford University. After forcing Oxford University to go to the high court in London to obtain an injunction removing us, we were thrown out by the bailiffs and police four days into the occupation. Our occupation has sparked off occupation meetings around the country and inspired much wider layers of students in Oxford than just the 49 of us who initially stormed the university's development offices.
    While individual non-payers can be isolated and scared, collective occupations that paralyse universities (ours cost 96,000 a day) put university managements on the defensive. They show the collective strength of students, giving leadership and confidence to those who previously have not taken part in struggle. A wave of occupations of universities across Britain is the tactic that could force the government to reverse its higher education policy. The mood for occupations exists and must be seized now.
    Helen Salmon
    Oxford University

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