On Guard for Strikebreakers

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Train guards began their first national strikes since privatisation at the end of last month in response to persistent attempts by train operators to diminish their safety role.

Strikes are under way at nine of the companies that have refused to implement rulebook changes recommended in a study commisioned by fellow train operator GNER. The regulator, the supposedly neutral Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), has responded by funding the recalcitrant train operators £10 million to take on the unions .

The companies have contemptuously ignored the experience and advice of their workers to pursue the transfer of safety responsibilities from guards to drivers--who are not in a position to offer the same standard of cover. The RMT rail workers union has condemned the decision to turn guards into glorified 'Kit-Kat sellers', a move it identifies as a step towards abolishing guards altogether. For the SRA to use taxpayers' money to try to break the strike is an indictment, if any more were needed, of the disaster of rail privatisation and the government's refusal to properly reverse it.

Six out of the 24 operators are technically insolvent, and only kept afloat by consistent SRA subsidies, according to an investigation in Rail magazine. A further six receive hundreds of millions of pounds more just to maintain basic services. The chaos of competing operators has led to a complete tack of accountability. So hundreds of new trains are being 'mothballed' at a cost of £100 million to the taxpayer because no one took responsibility to upgrade the power supply. And more than 100 services a day have been cut so companies can massage their punctuality figures and thus avoid fines. At present four out of ten high-speed trains fail to arrive on time.

These cuts will not be the last if the £7 million, government-funded thinktank Rail Research UK has its way. It has advised the cancellation or suspension of another 10 percent of Britain's daily services. If you are wondering how this tallies with John Prescott's much hyped ten-year transport plan--for which he promised 'new ideas, new powers, new ressources'--the answer is it doesn't.

It means more passengers, who pay the most expensive fares in Europe, being squeezed onto old, overcrowded trains. This increases the likelihood of, and the impact of, an accident and thus makes the guards' strike even more important. It also shows the need for challenging the whole disastrous policy of profiteering from the railways.