Rail workers pickets in Sheffield last year (Picture: Phil Turner)

Rail bosses’ maintenance cuts are threatening a major disaster and loss of life.

Jim, who works on rail maintenance, told Socialist Worker, “Managements are obsessed with cutting costs so that they can make more for the firms that run the system. And the government stand with them.

“They wanted to cut the ticket offices, they wanted to make us all ‘flexible’, they wanted to take away the specialist knowledge that specialised teams develop,

“It’s not just us working harder, it means safety flies out the window. I’m telling you now, there will be more crashes soon, and I really fear there will be corpses lined up. Then everyone will say there has been a bad culture. Well, take action now before it happens.

“I don’t know how the company executives can just gamble with people’s lives. It’s scary for us all, it’s seeing a crash coming and not being able to stop it.”

The crisis is particularly clear in the south west of England. This week safety fear saw trains between London Paddington and Reading disrupted after workers found a broken rail. The defect was in the Hayes and Harrington area in Greater London at a crucial point where trains transfer from one track to another.

 It was the fourth damaged rail on the Great Western Railway’s main line from London to the south west of England and Wales within just eight days.

 Workers, inspectors—and random members of the public—discovered other cracks in Slough, Bourton near Swindon, and Iver in Buckinghamshire

 One railway worker told the BBC that passenger trains would have been travelling over the cracks at about 125mph. “This is how trains come off the rails, putting lives at risk,” they said. “The one at Bourton wasn’t noticed until a member of the public who lives nearby noticed a change in the sound of the train.”

Just a few weeks ago, the TSSA union warned of “wholly unnecessary safety risks” on the railways as Network Rail announced a cull of almost 500 jobs. 

Network Rail is cutting back on plans to renew rails that have reached the end of their expected safe limits in order to balance the books. Most of the anticipated track renewals will now be deferred for at least five years, increasing the likelihood of catastrophic rail failure due to unaddressed metal fatigue.

The cuts will affect the High Output Track Renewals Team, which replaces old rails and sleepers, using specialist machinery. Network Rail is also drastically cutting its fleet of High Output Ballast Cleaner trains, which replace and replenish the stone ballast that tracks rest on.

In February, the RMT union said Network Rail was slashing the amount of maintenance work in half to support its Modernising Maintenance programme. It meant 1,850 maintenance jobs would go and maintenance slashed in half. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the plans were “a recipe for disaster”.

He added, “Broken rails are already being picked up by chance where inspections have been slashed. Critically, Network Rail is hellbent on ramming through these changes at pace despite the significant safety risks.” 

At the time, Andrew Haines, chief executive of  Network Rail said the cuts followed a lack of available work.

“We have this maintenance that doesn’t need doing,” he said. Haines added Network Rail wanted to optimise the maintenance teams it has, to work more efficiently and to avoid giving workers contracts with hours that cannot be guaranteed.

 That means squeezing every drop of work from maintenance staff and leaving no spare capacity. Network Rail’s schemes came in response to the government’s demands for £400 million “cost savings”.

The cuts have been part of the pay talks with the unions. Network Rail chief negotiator Tim Shoveller said, “The RMT has a track record of ‘crying wolf’ over non-existent safety fears whenever progress and new technology or techniques are on the horizon that threaten their archaic and out-of-date working practices.

“On the contrary, our proposals to modernise the way we carry out maintenance will only improve the safety of our railway for all its users.”

The damaged and dangerous rails give the lie to that claim. Rail worker Jim said, “It shows why we can’t negotiate away conditions and jobs.” 

RMT members working for the train operating companies have just accepted a below-inflation pay deal offered by train operating companies after 18 months of on-off strikes. Bosses now intend to ram through cuts company by company. Train drivers in the Aslef union return to strikes on Saturday. 

The full timetable of Aslef strikes

How cracked rail caused Hatfield disaster 

 The rail cracks now are a chilling echo of the lead-up to the rail crash in October 2000 at Hatfield, Hertfordshire. It was caused by a metal fatigue-induced derailment, killing four people and injuring more than 70.

Speed restrictions and emergency track replacement works caused disruption on a majority of the national network for more than a year.

Bosses at Railtrack—the privatised, national railway infrastructure company—used outsourcing to cut costs.

Management knew about the problem at Hatfield before the crash. Railtrack subsequently went bankrupt and Network Rail replaced it. In 2005, a court found both Railtrack and the contractor Balfour Beatty guilty of breaching health and safety laws.

The judge dismissed manslaughter charges against the firms’ executives before a jury considered them.

Do you have further information on this story or want to tell us about other areas where this is happening? Please contact reports@socialistworker.co.uk or charliek@socialistworker.co.uk  We can keep all sources anonymous if necessary. Speak out before there’s a disaster.

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