1990s >> 1999 >> no-1143-november-1999

“Everybody did what they could”

On Tuesday October 5th, at 8.11am, a Great Western express and Thames Trains commuter service smashed head on at a combined speed of 120mph just outside Paddington station. 31 people were killed.

Preliminary reports after the Ladbroke Grove train crash suggest that the Thames Trains driver passed a signal at danger, resulting in both trains being on the same track. The relevant signal—number 109—is the same one thought to have been involved in a near-miss incident in February 1998 when another Great Western express managed to brake in time to avoid a stationary London-bound Heathrow Express train. Rail sources have also reportedly acknowledged that “seven trains run by Thames Trains have, over the last 12 months, passed through signal 109 while on red” (Guardian, October 6). Such overshoots, known as SPADs (signals passed at danger) rose from 593 in 1997 to 643 in 1998. This does not automatically mean it is drivers at fault. Drivers have made a series of complaints about signal 109, pointing out it is badly situated and obscured by overhead cables and a pylon. Furthermore, train drivers are under pressure not to be late, to avoid their firms being fined by the train companies franchise director. And drivers work long hours while having to carry out repetitive button-pressing hundreds of times a day, and are therefore more prone to dangerous tiredness and boredom.

On the very same stretch of line two years ago, the Southall crash killed seven after a Great Western express jumped a red light and smashed into a goods train crossing its path. The firm was fined £1.5 million for breaking safety regulations after a court was told that one of the train’s key safety devices, the Advance Warning System which should have sounded a Klaxon before reaching each danger signal, was not working. In the court case, the judge remarked “There appears to be a conflict between profit and safety”.

Cost-per-file calculations
In 1989, the year after the Clapham crash in which 35 people died, its inquiry chairman Anthony Hidden recommended a failsafe system called Automatic Train Protection (ATP). It regulates train speeds, ruling out red signal overruns. However, capitalist “cost per life” calculations came up with a figure of £14 million to prevent each future death with ATP, and a total expenditure of around £1 billion to fit it throughout the network. Both the previous and present governments saw this cost as prohibitive, and in August this year, John Prescott opted for a much cheaper (£150 million) Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS), which gave a more “acceptable” £2.5 million cost-per-life calculation.

Immediately after the Ladbroke Grove crash, John Prescott said that his decision to implement TPWS had “nothing to do with cost”. And speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on October 7, when asked who would pay for installing the far better system (which the deputy PM had suddenly become very keen on), Prescott simply replied “finance isn’t a problem”. Pressed a second time, he said “It could be industry. I don’t think it necessarily has to be a charge on government . . . It is not a problem”. This is not so. If the 25 train operating companies are made to pay around £2 billion at today’s prices for ATP (or any other more advanced system), this charge would have to be passed on passengers through raised prices. Additionally, huge state subsidies (£1.8 billion in 1997-98) paid to the train operating companies are due to be reduced to £0.9 billion by 2002-03. The combined extra financial burden could make rail transport far less competitive in comparison with private cars, coach and bus journeys, and deter many from using trains. That loss of competitiveness would mean a significant loss of profits, and since profits are capitalism’s priority, the fact is ensuring maximum safety on the railways would turn into a commercial disaster.

What capitalist solution to over-expensive or under-safe rail travel can we expect now the old British Rail network has been broken into 100 component parts by privatisation in the dog days of John Major’s government? Car drivers having to pay yet higher prices for petrol and diesel to force them to use trains? There has to be a limit to what millions of motoring will tolerate before voting against those imposing the charges. Asking Gordon Brown to pay up? Surely not after all Blair’s meritocratic free-market praise and rejection of “old” Labour. Raised wages and salaries to cover more costly fares? Most unwelcome for firms in an increasingly competitive global market. Could William Hague offer us a way out? Hardly. His willingness to take unemployment benefits away from anyone refusing to accept a lousy job shows considerable admiration for market forces. Liberal Democrats? Just another bunch of lookalike politicians. So what’s the answer? Let us take another look at what happened in the Ladbroke Grove crash, for not only was this a result of capitalism’s profits-before-people unavoidability, but a far better diametrically opposite way of living and working was suddenly revealed amidst the chaos.

Unforced co-operation
At Ladbroke Grove, socialists saw for a brief period capitalism’s habitual grip on people’s lives shaken off by a shared disaster, and humankind’s suppressed helpful co-operative nature suddenly came to the fore. Despite jagged mangled wreckage, fire and fumes that survivors had to escape from immediately after the impact, commuters who had been reticent strangers just moments earlier, disjointed by a competitive and individualistic marketplace, unselfishly acted to save and assist others. From getting ready to hurry off the express train and compete in a rush for the tube, taxis and buses to reach places of employment, instead, authoritative suits were removed to helpfully beat out burning clothing of others. Working women wearing heels teetered back and forth to support those more seriously hurt. Residents living nearby rushed over with ladders to reach down to the track to provide assistance. Workers at a Sainsbury’s store commandeered first aid supplies for lacerations, and bags of frozen food for burns. Staff at a school helped emergency services turn their premises into a makeshift field hospital. As one person said, “everybody did what they could”. Such abundant unforced co-operation for the benefit of all in need is how it should be; how it would be, but how it won’t be while profit-takers, their politicians, money mechanism, bureaucrats, rules and law enforcers act together to maintain capitalism’s divisive and exploitative system.

It is somewhat encouraging that every time a horrific rail, ship or air crash occurs, many people will now complain angrily to radio programmes and the press, that profit has yet again been put before people. This will almost always be true, but regrettably, come election time, this awareness and sanity about the danger of living in a profit-driven economy has usually been driven from voters minds by endless media coverage of wholly irrelevant policies on income tax, unemployment, minimum wage rates etc. And off a majority will go to mark their crosses beside some candidate who wants to govern capitalism. Such voting then guarantees yet another five years of business profit-making and cost savings having pre-eminence, thereby keeping going the conditions that will give rise to further money-related disasters.

However, with so many people now aware how much harm and misery profits can cause, the socialist alternative of the safest possible travel systems with no financial restraints whatsoever, and no over-worked stressed-out workers, appears more clearly as the way out. If people come to see that profits themselves only exist because a minority have unjust possession of what the majority need, and this dominant class exploit both with damaging anti-social consequences, then all that unfocused anger would linger, politicians’ gibberish and worthless promises would be ignored, and there would be ever-increasing support for common ownership of vital industries and other productive assets, along with politician-free democratic control over how these are used. This is genuine socialism. It has never existed anywhere. It would make restrictive and dangerous money completely obsolete. Take a little time to find out more about this people-first system before your next trip to the polling stations (or some other serious trip).


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