SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 157 - April 2012

Off on the wrong track?

The announcement in early 2011 of plans for a new high-speed rail link has already generated a great deal of debate in the media and the communities affected by the project, as well as on the letters pages of The Socialist newspaper. In a further contribution to the debate, NEIL CAFFERKY outlines the main issues raised.

THE PLAN IS to build a high-speed line from London to Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham with expected costs varying between £32 and £37 billion. The project has been dubbed High Speed 2 (HS2 – HS1 being the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, connecting London to Calais and the wider European continent, and the north Kent high-speed train). The first trains are expected to travel to Birmingham in 2026 and Manchester in 2032-3. There are also provisional plans to upgrade two lines, on the north-east and north-west coasts, to bring Edinburgh and Glasgow into the HS2 network at some future date.

There are various arguments put forward in favour of HS2. The official government website,, promises readers: "The new scheme will improve capacity across the rail network, shorten journey times between Britain’s major population centres, boost the economy and create thousands of jobs". The website comes with video simulations of a space-age bullet train powering through the bucolic English countryside. The live twitter feed makes a number of claims about the environmental impact of the project in an attempt to answer local critics. Clearly, the government is preparing the ground for a major PR battle in favour of the project, which is unsurprising given the controversy that has surrounded the building of a high-speed rail line in northern Italy.

Objections to the plan revolve around two issues. Firstly, there is the environmental and social impact of the project, particularly on communities where the HS2 will be built. Much of the media has focused on the objections of the residents of the Chilterns, an area of ‘outstanding natural beauty’. However, according to the Camden New Journal, over 500 homes, many of them council houses, in the vicinity of Euston station, London, will face demolition. This has prompted a vigorous campaign by local people and small-business owners affected by HS2 construction. Socialist Party members are also involved in an anti-HS2 campaign in Aylesbury.

Secondly, there is what can broadly be called doubts about the economics behind the scheme. In particular, there are doubts about whether HS2 will double rail use by 2043, as the government claims, or that it will really drive job creation and economic regeneration in the North of the country.

The great train robbery

FOR SOCIALISTS, WEIGHING up the pros and cons of projects like HS2, the first question is: whose interests are served in this project? In answering this, it is worth looking at the wider context of the railway industry in Britain. On the surface, investing £32 billion seems like a vote of confidence in the rail system. The question is: what kind of railway system does the government and big business envisage? The answer can be found in the McNulty report, which outlines the biggest restructuring of Britain’s railways since privatisation in the early 1990s.

The actual method and conclusions of McNulty are a laboratory example of big business finding empirical facts, then drawing conclusions that are directly contradictory to them because they suit their own short-term commercial interests.

In the executive summary of the report, McNulty concludes, unsurprisingly, that the rail network has suffered serious fragmentation since privatisation. This has led to a number of problems that will be more than familiar to the travelling public. The most obvious is the blatant profiteering by the train operating companies like Virgin and First Capital Connect. There can be no greater condemnation of privatisation and marketisation on the railways than McNulty’s comparison with similar rail networks in Europe that are largely publicly owned. While taxpayers in Britain fork out on average 30% more in subsidies to the rail network (read private companies) than other publicly-owned European rail networks, the average cost of tickets is 30% higher!

The obvious conclusions that socialists, and most likely the hard pressed rail commuter, would draw is that the rail system should be brought back into public ownership. This is the position that has been put forward by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) in its response to McNulty. However, re-nationalisation is not even considered by the report. Instead, McNulty recommends less government regulation. More power would be given to the train operating companies to drive down costs on the network. In other words, more privatisation and marketisation to cure the problems caused by privatisation and maketisation.

Attacking pay and conditions

McNULTY IS ALSO explicit about the need to destroy the terms and conditions of railway workers. Point 15 of the executive summary states: "The industry also has weakness in HR/IR [human resources/industrial relations] management which have allowed excessive wage drift, at all levels, and the continuation of inefficient work practices".

It then goes to explain: "The expectation that salaries, at all levels of the railway industry, will increase ahead of inflation has to end. Indeed, with many passengers and taxpayers having their salaries frozen at present, even the granting of inflation-level increases must be questioned". Further: "The overall trend to reduce continually the length of the working day and the working week is unsustainable. A starting point would be to review the salaries and employment terms for new entrants to the industry".

The unquestioned assumption in McNulty is that rail workers’ living standards must fall in order for costs to be driven down and profits maintained. In practice, the only way to achieve this would be to take on the railway unions in a manner similar to the harsh methods used in the British Airways cabin crew dispute. There can be no clearer example of economic decisions taken to benefit big business at the expense of workers.

The practical effect of McNulty is spelt out quite clearly by the RMT in its response to the report, Paying for Privatisation. Greater freedom for train operating companies will see thousands of jobs going as ticket offices are closed and stations are left undermanned.

McNulty is highly relevant to the debate on HS2 because it reveals the future plans for the railway system. HS2, if it was run along the lines envisaged by the McNulty report, would be a playground for private operators to charge whatever prices they liked while relentlessly driving down the pay and conditions of the workers who would build and operate the railways.

It could also be argued that HS2, as it stands, is a massive distraction from a coming crisis in the network. This has been put forward by the president of the RMT, Alex Gordon, in the pages of the Morning Star (22 January): "The hypocrisy at the heart of the Con-Dem coalition is that on the one hand it is proposing to spend £37 billion on HS2. And on the other it is endorsing the slaughter of jobs and funding for the rest of the network being proposed by the McNulty report".

The interests of finance capital

DEFENDERS OF THE HS2 project, particularly the Department of Transport, often point to the effect HS2 could have in driving much needed economic growth in northern England. Before examining this claim it is worth taking a step back and considering why it is necessary to kick-start economic growth in this region. To put it another way, why does economic performance in the North of England lag behind London and the South East?

Industrial production, traditionally based in the Midlands and the North, has declined massively, while the financial services industry based in the City of London has risen remorselessly. This is often presented as a natural development of a ‘mature’ economy as manufacturing moves from ‘high wage’ western countries to lower wage countries in East Asia, Latin America or Eastern Europe.

This supposedly ‘natural’ process hides the reality that the decline of manufacture in Britain was a conscious political and economic choice of a majority of the capitalist class. Investment in British manufacturing declined from the 1960s onward causing it to lose out in the battle with its German and far eastern rivals. Instead, the emphasis was placed on finance capitalism, on speculation and gambling in the City. The effect of this has been two-fold. Firstly, the British working class can be said broadly to have lost out as relatively well paid, often unionised, manufacturing jobs have moved abroad to be replaced, if at all, by low wage, insecure service industry jobs.

Secondly, the finance-capital wing of the capitalist class has been politically strengthened at the expense of those capitalists who remain based in the manufacturing sector. This means that national economic decision making tends to favour the needs of finance capital, based in the City and the surrounding region. The bias towards London and the South East can be seen in the HS2 project which, far from benefiting the economy of northern English cities, may in fact cause them to fall further behind London.

The most glaring example of this is the impact HS2 will have on those cities that will not be connected to the route, such as Coventry and Stoke. Routes to other cities not part of HS2 will be cut in order to allow HS2 to make fewer stops. Therefore, many cities will find they are actually more isolated from the transport system.

For those cities that are connected to HS2 the evidence of economic benefit is scant. In France, more businesses have located to Paris since the opening of the high-speed Lyon to Paris line in 1981. A similar pattern was repeated in Spain with the opening of high-speed rail between Seville and Madrid in 1991.

It is worth considering whether the billions spent on HS2 will actually create a jobs bonanza in the North of England. It could just as easily be argued that shaving off the journey time from Manchester and Leeds to London will allow London-based employees to take advantage of lower house prices in the North and still commute to work. Even the government’s own figures predict that seven out of ten of the new jobs created by HS2 will be in the South East.

A much more immediate and cheaper boost to the economy in the North of England would be to raise national pay rates in the public sector, rather than cutting the wages of public-sector workers in poorer cities as part of an austerity programme aimed at subsiding private banking debts. This is not to counterpose infrastructure spending to wage rises. It is to illustrate how the economic policy of the government is geared at all times towards the needs of big business in general and finance capital in particular, and not the needs of workers.

Environmental factors

A SLIGHTLY LESS mainstream argument in favour of HS2 is environmental. The development of a modern rail network is seen as essential in weaning people off more polluting forms of travel such as road and air traffic. Socialists would agree with this is general. Within a socialist plan of production, it would be possible to develop a modern rail network as a key part of an integrated transport system.

However, the particulars of how HS2 would operate, as it currently stands, seem to point in the opposite direction. Freight will be excluded from HS2 entirely and will be shunted onto the more ‘conventional’ rail network. Thanks to the complicated franchising process designed to incentivise private train operating companies there is already a bias towards passenger rather than freight travel.

With longer journey times and higher prices many companies will switch to more polluting road haulage. This will have a knock-on effect on the already overcrowded road network causing longer delays and hence more pollution. Once again, this is a symptom of the bias towards the finance capital of the South East, whose primary concern is the rapid transport of people into and out of London, against the needs of manufacturing, which relies on the swift transportation of goods and raw materials.

The unforeseen consequences of transport policy also underline the need for democratic and centralised planning in order to achieve the optimum environmental impact.

Undermining local decision making

THE FINAL POINT relating to the impact of HS2 is the effect it will have on the communities it passes through. Protest campaigns objecting to various aspects of the project have sprung up across the country. The motivations for these objections are diverse and could take up an article in themselves. Whatever the merits of the various objections, one consistent aspect socialists must take into account is the democracy of the decision-making process.

Previous points in the article highlighted the priority given to the needs of the capitalist class in shaping economic policy. This is not to say that big business entirely dictates how economic policy is implemented, however. A degree of democratic control does exist in the planning laws, where a certain amount of oversight is given to locally elected councils. It is important not to overstate the amount of democratic control that local councils exercise. The capitalist class has huge financial resources with which it can wage campaigns in favour of any given project, through the media, court challenges and so on. There is also the obvious problem of a lack of political representation at local council level where all three main political parties, which make up the majority of local representatives, are essentially pro-big business.

Nevertheless, the fact that these democratic channels do exist, for all their flaws, is a point of pressure that a community campaign can use if it wishes to object to a development like HS2.

This is all set to change with the draft National Planning Policy Framework, where the Con-Dem government is attempting to erase almost completely any local democratic control of planning policy. The crux of the new laws is that any planning application will have a "presumption in favour of sustainable development". This will tip the balance decisively in favour of developers and make it extremely difficult for councils to object to new development projects.

The brutal methods employed to force through high-speed rail in northern Italy illustrate what can happen when local democracy is bypassed and developers and governments are insulated from any democratic control and oversight. In the years to come, HS2 will certainly see campaigns and protests against it. It cannot be ruled out that similar methods could be used in Britain against local campaigns that are pushed into direct action once all other channels of protest are closed off.

The case for socialist planning

THERE ARE TIMES when the needs of broader society must take precedence over the objections of one part of the community. However, the best way to reach a true consensus is not through concentrating more powers in the hands of developers. Instead, a more democratic and accountable economic system can ensure the best economic decisions can be reached. Such a system is impossible under capitalism as economic decisions are taken in the interests of a small clique of billionaires.

Under a socialist government the key sectors of the economy, including transport, would be publicly owned. This would allow democratic input into decision making from transport workers, local residents and the working class as a whole. A socialist economic plan would bring trade unions, locally elected councils and a government based on the interests of the working class into the heart of the decision-making process. All of those people charged with making and implementing economic policy would be subject to recall. There would be full freedom of information to ensure there were no vested interests driving economic policy.

In such a system, geared towards the needs of the majority, a proper transport policy could be drawn up as part of an economic plan to develop the whole of the country, ending the necessity for people to travel long distances to one particular area of the country to find work.

The root cause of the problems outlined in this article can be said to be the monopoly of power exercised by the capitalist class in the economy through the private ownership of the most vital parts of the economy. The task of the working class is to wrest that power and ownership from the capitalists through the building of our own democratic organisations, our trade unions, our community campaigns and our own political party, and to lay the foundations for the democratic control and ownership of the economy.


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