By George Wasserhouse
Railway employment with its stability and discipline produced a proud workforce with a strong sense of identity. This was reflected in the union the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) which became the National Union of Railwaymen in 1913. It was a friendly society that looked after its members and their families in an industry where injury and even death at work was common. At meetings branch chairs presided holding the branch gavels, conferences were chaired by their president wearing his chain of office. They called each other brother, we still do. When the union marched it did so in formation behind beautiful branch banners with brass bands and branch officials wearing their embroidered red and green sashes. David Howell’s study of the history of railway union politics is entitled ‘respectable radicals’ and in their uniform, their time keeping and their adherence to railway rules and regulations, they certainly were very respectable. With their peaked caps there was a semi-military way of working, today on the railway we still use terms such as “messrooms”. With its national spread railway trade unionism was the backbone of the labour movement-particularly in rural areas. ASRS organiser James Holmes successfully brought the motion to establish the labour representation committee at the 1899 TUC and the 1901 Taff Vale judgement which fined the ASRS for damages for a strike encouraged the rest of the trade union movement to support the establishment of the Labour Party. During these years my great great grandfather George Thaxton was ASRS president he went on to be one of the first Labour Party aldermen of Leeds city council. Like many of his contemporaries he educated himself at a nonconformist evening school and his socialist politics evolved from his Christian ethics. Railway employment retains many features that are unfortunately seen as old fashioned. It remains highly unionised, internal promotion is common – you can work your way up from cleaning to driving trains – it is also still a family occupation with many generations following their parent’s footsteps.
Our railway receives 2-3 times more in state subsidy in real terms than British Rail did. We have the most expensive railway in Europe. Many of our franchises are run by foreign state owned firms. Our system is complicated and fragmented with many different companies and contractors operating on a railway that could be run more efficiently if ran as a single company. There is a huge regional disparity in railway infrastructure investment with London receiving more transport funding per head than the rest of the country combined. The government has recently announced that planned electrification of lines in the north of England and wales have been cancelled while London is set to enjoy a crossrail 2 after an expensive crossrail 1 has been recently completed.
With our pending withdrawal from the European Union we can escape from liberalising EU rail directives that enforce separation of rail infrastructure and operations and facilitate competitive tendering for contracts open to all in the single market. We could establish a unified railway run on a not for profit basis. This doesn’t have to be a resurrected British Rail circa 1994. There is an opportunity to run a better railway that engages with its workers and passengers with union and community transport groups represented on the board.
A community group at my local station, Freccles (friends of Eccles station) organise monthly gardening sessions to maintain beautiful flower beds. They have produced notices of historical interest around the station, lobby the authorities for increased stopping services produce a newsletter with service updates and suggestions of days out. This passionate sense of community could be harnessed to transform a post-Brexit Britain where our railways are ran with a sense of civic and collective pride.
And a state-run railway could end contracting out and reliance on foreign companies to create decent employment for our communities. There are many highly skilled well paid jobs on the railway, but the workforce is an aging one. National schools could be established to take on apprentices to teach our children key skills in rail manufacturing, engineering and operations. The great loco works of Crewe and Doncaster that once employed tens of thousands and built trains to run across the globe are now shadows of their former selves where trains are now maintained rather than constructed. York and Darlington works are now museums. With many of our trains now built abroad, trains are now built only in Derby and Newton Aycliffe, County Durham by a total workforce of only around two thousand people. This sector could receive a massive boost from a new peoples’ railway. Post-industrial areas of high unemployment could see a return of manufacturing jobs.
Brexit is an opportunity to get our railways back. Let’s take it.
George Wasserhouse is a train guard and Chair of the Manchester South branch of the RMT trade union.