1980s >> 1988 >> no-1003-march-1988

Going underground

At the time of writing, the “public” inquiry into the King’s Cross fire in which 31 people were killed is in progress. Already there have been astonishing revelations about poor safety standards, and the hazards created by limited cleaning and maintenance budgets. The inquiry is likely to generate reams of waffle, with much soul-searching and mutual recriminations. There will be weighty statements about neglect, responsibility and human failings.

What the final report is unlikely to admit, however, is that these deaths, like so many others, were caused by money, or rather the lack of it. In the case of the Zeebrugge disaster and many other recent “accidents”, we have been able to show using the publicly available evidence, that the cause was economic. King’s Cross was no exception. The profit system constantly channels resources away from real human needs and into speculative investment and capital accumulation. It is only after a disaster has happened and an “unacceptable” number of lives have been lost, that the possibility of allocating slightly more resources to public safety is considered.

We have already pointed out, in a previous issue, how some time ago, money intended for replacing the wooden escalator at the heart of the fire had been diverted into funding murals and other decorations intended to improve the image and profitability of London Regional Transport as a trading enterprise. That wooden escalator, which those who know King’s Cross will be only too familiar with, was about fifty years old. It dated from an entirely different period in technological terms. Was there an automatic fire sprinkler system throughout the station? No. Was there a special alarm system, which might respond to smoke? No. The fact is. even some of the modest household devices which the moderately well-off might be able to afford are absent when they have to be funded by the state.

Why is this? Because the capitalist employers who ultimately finance the state have, as their priority, the accumulation of capital. Despite recent claims in a Conservative Party Political Broadcast that “we” pay £700 to the NHS every second, we know that PAYE is just another con to make us feel we have a stake in government. In fact, with or without tax. as workers our living standards are constantly forced to the minimum by the profit priority. Public safety is also often of low priority. We don’t need a “public inquiry” to tell us that King’s Cross station, like so many others, is dirty and dangerous, with only meagre safety procedures.

LRT is in the process of putting cleaning and other maintenance duties out to tender by private companies, whose budgets and treatment of their workers are even more penny-pinching than LRT was. And some of the recent priority areas of expenditure on the Underground and Buses (which are continuing as priorities, despite the fire) show an utter contempt for human life which should earn the LRT management a medal as upholders of the capitalist mentality. Expensive video cameras are being installed on London buses to prevent vandalism. Nearly one million pounds is being spent every year on cleaning “graffiti” from tube trains, much of which in recent years has been based on New York “street art” and is quite eye-catching. But such spontaneous marks on the environment are seen as offensive, and are wiped out in favour of the imposed corporate design. It is also an example of the warped priorities we are referring to: the moral guardians who are so offended by rude words (no, they don’t mean “war” or “poverty”) are served by teams of special cleaners, whilst the ancient debris which fuelled the fire under the escalator was left to rot. And perhaps most dramatically of all, millions of pounds are currently being spent installing new high-tech ticket machines at every station. which are said to be more cost-effective. This will allow a massive redundancy programme of 900 ticket office staff, which is already under way. In addition new barriers (which we will have more to say about below) are being installed which also cause ticket collectors to be made redundant. Together with the recent introduction of “one-man” trains on almost every line, this is all part of the cost-cutting exercise which is the inevitable obsession of the capitalist system. The inquiry might touch on the possibility that if trains had still had a second operator the death-toll might have been reduced, but will it explore the reasons behind the cost-cutting obsession?

Leaving to one side these overwhelmingly economic factors, what about the supposed problem of callous neglect? It is true that early reports of smoke appear to have been neglected by staff, and no doubt the actions of these LRT workers will be held up to public scrutiny. Those who prefer not to see social problems for what they are will find here the perfect victims for individual blame. But it is hardly surprising that workers under pressure will sometimes act “negligently”. Quite apart from the long hours, low pay and dirty conditions which all but destroy any enthusiasm or job satisfaction, the hierarchical system of management within such an institution teaches those within it that they must not step out of their assigned area, or act with creative initiative. And in addition to the weighty bureaucracy (which has always been associated with the railways in particular), there is the ethic of self-interest, the idea of the competitive rat-race which the government does so much to promote. Even without their propaganda efforts, an economic system exists throughout the world today which teaches people from birth that in order to fit in with things as they are, they must avoid too much humane caring for others, too much soppy sentimental sensitivity, otherwise they will be “done down”. And then the same hypocrites who applaud the vicious self-interest of the “business world” of enterprise will try to pin the blame on the “uncaring” workers at King’s Cross station that fateful day.

This brings us finally to one or two of the more bizarre escapades which have also emerged lately from the enterprising young whizz-kids in charge of London Underground. On 31 January the Observer exposed plans being urgently pursued by Chris Bennett, London Underground’s industrial relations manager, to sell off the less profitable underground stations which will be run instead by commercial interests or even voluntary groups. By franchising off sections of the network to commercial operators, they will cut staff still further and approach their target of becoming a profitable enterprise with no government support whatsoever. Where private buyers cannot be found, “responsibility for stations may be offloaded to voluntary groups, such as Neighbourhood Watch schemes, or Underground enthusiasts”. Let us hope that these Underground enthusiasts are also handy with a fire extinguisher. It is thought that young people on YTS schemes could also “be pressed into service”. As a possible pilot area for the scheme, they have identified the line from Epping to Ongar. which has been kept open recently only because of pressure from residents (how cheeky they are to expect to have stations where they live!).

The most vivid example of profit’s tyranny comes in the shape of the new barriers referred to above. They are ugly, shoulder-high constructions, designed as the ultimate obstacle to the dreaded fare-dodgers, those people who dare to go on “our” public railways without paying. The installation of these barriers will cause 1,200 ticket collector redundancies. LRT hope. The Fire Brigades Union has strongly opposed the barriers, with Mike Fordham. FBU Deputy General Secretary stating that “People will die somewhere at some point because of these barriers” (London Evening Standard, 11 December 1987). The NUR has also pointed out that if such barriers had been at King s Cross on the night of the fire, “they would undoubtedly have produced more deaths that night”. But LRT push on regardless. A spokesman was quoted as saying that the King’s Cross inquiry was “irrelevant and peripheral” to the installation programme. “We see no reason to delay”. It seems, moreover, that these prize idiots are aspiring to comedy and farce as well as tragedy. Special panic buttons are to be fitted to the hideous barriers, to allow passengers to unlock the gates in an emergency. But London Underground has admitted that, to deter vandals and fare-dodgers. their location would be “kept secret for security reasons”! (London Evening Standard, 11 December 1987).

The FBU are right: there will be more deaths. And the sickest thing of all is that we all know there will be more deaths, more “disasters” and more theatrical “inquiries”. And they will continue until we alter the basis of society, and therefore its priorities.

Clifford Slapper