Review of 'On the Wrong Line', Christian Wolmar, Aurum Press £10.99
With the companies involved in the Hatfield rail disaster having just been fined £10 million for negligence, this is a timely book. Perhaps the tube bosses should read it, and they might understand why having private contractors working on a railway is a bad idea.
The book has a chapter of useful and interesting details about the history of railway development in Britain. This gives the background, before Christian Wolmar looks more specifically at the most recent privatisation under the last Tory and New Labour governments. He looks at the early development of the rail network and the state of the railways in the years after the Second World War. A close study of the 'golden days' reveals the flaws that existed before privatisation, but as you go through the book these flaws seem as nothing when compared with what came later.
In the chapters on the Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar accidents, Wolmar presents evidence which shows how the fragmentation and privatisation of the railways were the key contributory factors in these terrible events. But it's not only this - because of fragmentation the lessons learned from the earlier incidents were not acted upon, as there was no direct path of accountability.
A detailed look at the record of Conservative and New Labour administrations is revealing. The Tories were shown to be unashamedly selling off the family silver and setting things up for their business friends to make a financial killing. Labour, on the other hand, was full of promise and attacked the privatisation while in opposition, but when it came to power continued it with even more zeal than the Tories. New Labour, the great hope in stopping railway privatisation, has been forced to change the organisation because of the serious accidents that have happened under its rule. The railway is now under the direct control of the Department of Transport, but it is so ideologically embarrassed by what it has done that it refuses to call it renationalisation.
The chapter on 'the risk paradox' takes on the argument that the railways have improved their safety record and accidents such as Ladbroke Grove are an aberration. Wolmar does this concisely and convincingly.
This book has lots of useful facts and figures. For example: the rolling stock companies were allowed to buy the rolling stock at a massively subsidised price and then made a quick profit selling it off at a higher value; taxpayers paid £600 million to consultants and lawyers alone to prepare the ground for privatisation; and subsidies for the railways have increased threefold in real terms since the days of public ownership. This exposes the lies millions of ordinary people are fed about resources being limited and services having to pay for themselves.
Wolmar has written a very informative and interesting book that concludes that we need the railways to be run as a publicly owned company with independence from the government. One criticism, however, is that he sees no role for the trade unions, and really dismisses any influence they could have apart from representing their members in a very narrow way.
This book exposes the tragedy of privatisation and the massive criminal waste of resources it involved. It also shows how the forces inside a capitalist society clash with the need to develop a resource which could massively benefit our society and improve people's day to day lives.