Are we about to see the end of railway manufacture in Britain?

The government seems uninterested in diverting any of our public funds to this genuinely useful purpose.

Proletarian writers

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Given the centrality of rail infrastructure to a functioning modern economy, it is a damning indictment of capitalist production anarchy that a vital centre of high-tech rail manufacture is being left to fold.

Proletarian writers

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Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the railway industry will be aware of Britain’s ‘railway cities’: York, Doncaster and Derby, in particular. Now with the news that the Alstom works, which has been building locomotives and passenger coaches for almost 150 years, may be forced to close for lack of orders, Derby may be about to become a former railway city. (Major HS2 factory facing closure … before it can make a single HS2 train by Rob Hastings, i News, 10 April 2024)

Anyone who has taken a train over the last few weeks on London’s Elizabeth line, in the West Midlands, or on the Greater Anglia network in the east of England, will in all likelihood have been travelling on a train built at the Derby works.

The ‘Aventra’ family of trains, currently used by many train operators in Britain, have been built for nine years at the Litchurch Lane works. Initially under the ownership of the German-Canadian Bombardier train manufacturing group and lately under French-based Alstom, which bought out Bombardier’s troubled transport division in 2021.

Despite the fact that hundreds of new trains have been delivered from there during the last decade, the factory machines are at imminent risk of falling silent, the staff who work there are threatened with redundancy, and their specialised skills could be lost to the country.

Separation of the rolling stock: a jolly good wheeze

Since the privatisation of British Rail in 1994, rolling stock procurement has been carried out in a fundamentally unplanned manner.

Regular rail users may well have wondered why they are carried on new, accessible and modern trains on some journeys, yet on others are forced onto small, noisy, ramshackle boneshakers that smell pungently of diesel. The truth is that, as the railways became a fragmented mess in the wake of privatisation, so too did the way in which the various operating companies manage their trains.

One hidden aspect of this fragmentation was the creation of rolling stock (ie, train) companies – ‘Roscos’ – that came into existence to lease what had been British Rail’s train fleet to the private companies that operated the various rail franchises.

The Roscos were founded with two key functions in mind, the first being to create an artificial separation wall between the train operating companies and the trains that they run. This separation was vital, because it meant that the capitalists who were handed the keys to Britain’s railway network would not be on the hook for replacing trains that had become unreliable and, in some cases, defunct through years of underinvestment by Labour and Tory governments alike.

The package that the privateers wanted was one that made it as straightforward as possible to hand the keys back and walk away if adequate profits were not forthcoming – as has happened three times on the East Coast mainline franchise alone (currently operated by the state as ‘operator of last resort’).

A similarly artificial separation was created with the establishment of Network Rail, whose job it became to manage the physical infrastructure of rail tracks, signals and stations.

Importantly for the government and the railway robber barons, this separation created more centres for the extraction of profit. Companies like Angel Trains, Eversholt Rail Group and Porterbrook have generated millions in profits from the artificial disconnect between the trains and the companies that run them.

This all feeds into the labyrinthine system that has seen rail fares skyrocket, actively deterring both ordinary working-class people and huge numbers of businesses from considering rail as a viable means of moving themselves or their goods from one place to another, despite the fact that by any rational calculation it remains the most efficient means of transport on the planet by far.

High Speed 2 fiasco

This corrupt and exploitative system has helped to create the situation in which the workers in Derby now find themselves. Whatever people’s opinions regarding the High Speed 2 rail line, it cannot be denied that, as a civil engineering project, it has been a disaster.

The line, which was originally intended to join London Euston with three end-points: Manchester, Leeds and East Midlands Parkway, has been cut back to just a single branch from London to Birmingham. And it still isn’t certain whether the high-speed line will actually run all the way into Euston or will terminate seven miles to the west at Old Oak Common.

The project is not only severely truncated but notoriously late and astronomically over budget, and one of the knock-on consequences of this is that the Derby HS2 contract, involving the fit-out of 54 new trains being built at the Hitachi plant in Newton Aycliffe (County Durham), has been delayed until 2026 at the earliest. With the last Aventra trains rolling into service and no HS2 trains arriving at Litchurch Lane, Alstom is now looking to close the Derby plant – in all likelihood permanently.

Why no help for this vital industry?

Despite the importance of the Litchurch Lane manufacture to Britain’s rail industry, the government appears to be totally uninterested in either taking over the works or even in offering some assistance to keep the plant open until the HS2 trains arrive. And this despite the fact that not only will 1,300 highly-skilled workers in Derby lose their jobs, but many other local businesses that provide parts and services in the supply chains that feed into Litchurch Lane will also be forced to close. Indeed, some have done so already as the flow of work has dwindled into a trickle.

This is not only a catastrophe for one of Britain’s remaining significant industrial centres, but for the rail industry as a whole and for British manufacturing generally. Such specialised plants, once mothballed, are very rarely reopened. Such a specialised workforce, once dispersed, is almost impossible to reassemble.

Deindustrialisation has been a feature of British economic life since the end of the 19th century, and the root causes of this phenomenon were explained in great detail by VI Lenin in his groundbreaking 1916 work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. This process has accelerated greatly since the 1970s, after the postwar boom came to an end and the government of Margaret Thatcher was tasked with finding ways to maximise profitability for British finance capital.

Today, the threatened closure of the Derby train works brings into sharp focus the fact that monopoly capitalism has no answers to the problems faced by workers in need of meaningful and useful jobs, and no ability to execute rationally even so simple a task as procuring the rolling stock for a railway line.

Capital cares for only one thing: the maximisation of profit. If in the pursuit of that aim the country’s economy and industry are hollowed out and skilled workers are thrown on the scrap heap of unemployment, so be it.

It is the logic of capital, not the logic of rational human beings, that can dictate the closure of a vital hub of industrial and infrastructure development and human labour-power because of a mere 18-month gap on its order book.

This situation also brings us face to face with the essential inefficiency of monopoly capitalism, in which so much resource is wasted on bribery and corruption of all kinds, in which huge fortunes are syphoned from the public purse for no public purpose, and in which decision-making and implementation are held up by the leeches who use every opportunity to get a fresh feed from the public body. Huge sums are spent lining the pockets of shareholders and CEOs of a multitude of ‘stakeholder’ companies, as well as on the daily fees of ‘consultancy’ firms that have a vested interest in spinning out projects so as to keep the money flowing.

Only the insatiable thirst of these leeches, who naturally prefer getting paid to do as little as possible than for any usefully productive work, explains the inability of late-stage capitalism to deliver on major engineering projects like High Speed 2, which has become notorious as a basket case nationally and a laughing stock internationally amidst its seemingly endless back and forth of route changes, planning objections and cost overruns.

Ultimately, the only answer to all this waste and irrationality is to renationalise the entire rail industry, from manufacturing plants, infrastructure and rolling stock to the operation of trains and stations. Not the kind of ‘nationalisation’ where the profiteers are handsomely ‘compensated’ and the ‘government-run’ service is starved of resources until such time as it can be handed back to private interests, but the kind achieved by socialist governments whose policy is shaped by the real interests of the working masses.

Only by completely removing the opportunities for profit-taking from every area of our transport system can Britain’s working class be ensured of safe, reliable, affordable and modern trains, planned and run in order to meet the needs of the people in their social and economic life.