The Guardian August 30, 2000


Britain: "Microwave drivers"

In the hands of the private sector, public transport in Britain 
continues to decline, as revealed by another batch of reports released this 
month. There are striking similarities with developments in Australia, 
where public transport is heading down the same privatisation track. Daphne 
Liddle reports.

The effects of cost-cutting by private companies have been exposed by a 
young driver working for Valley Lines.

He warned that safety is being compromised as train drivers are being 
rushed through training so quickly they are known as "microwave drivers".

This driver, who preferred to remain anonymous, said also that cuts in 
middle management were hampering management's ability to control safety.

The company has refuted these claims but they seem to be supported by 
figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

These showed three incidents of trains passing signals at danger on the 
small Valley Lines network in the first quarter of this financial year.

The HSE is also looking into an incident of a train setting off along a 
single-track line without the required authorisation.

One HSE staff member said: "There have been instances where employees have 
been told to keep a train in service by the control office, when all the 
guidelines tell you it must come out of service for safety reasons. Profit 
comes before safety."

There are further claims concerning the inadequate training of the new 
"microwave" drivers.

One HSE staff member said: "The standard of training is poor and drivers 
are pressurised into signing for routes before they are fully familiar with 
them.

"There are some good people employed by Valley Lines and there are bad 
apples, as with any company. But even the most conscientious employees are 
suffering low morale."

One report from the pressure group Transport 2000 showed that big bus 
operators are cutting rural services in favour of the more lucrative town 
centre routes.

Passengers from places as far apart as Glasgow, Cornwall, Cheshire and 
Gloucestershire are complaining that services are disappearing fast.

Three big companies  Stagecoach, Aniva and First Group  control most of 
Britain's local buses.

David Redgewell, the Somerset area campaigner for Transport 2000, warned 
that First Group is planning to withdraw completely 57 routes in Cornwall, 
Devon, Dorset and Somerset.

Four depots are scheduled for closure along with at least two ticket and 
information centres.

Mr Redgewell admits the services to be withdrawn could never be profitable. 
But he says, the operators should be compelled to keep them running as a 
vital lifeline for isolated communities.

In theory the franchises held by these companies do compel them to maintain 
rural services but the clauses are not enforced.

Local authorities just do not have the same legal and financial resources 
as giant companies like Stagecoach for court battles.

Since privatisation, a process of monopolisation has taken place among the 
private bus companies leaving just a handful of giant companies that are 
far more powerful than the local authorities.

The Government has promised to double expenditure on local bus services 
over the next decade to L4 billion (A$10b). But until the service is 
renationalised there is no way to ensure that money is spent where it is 
most needed and does not simply end up as share dividends for the big 
companies.

The inquiries into the Southall and Paddington rail crashes have shown 
these companies have little to fear from the law even when neglect and 
cost-cutting does lead to disasters and the loss of passengers' lives.

The only solution is to bring public transport back under public control.

* * *
New Worker (abridged), New Communist Party of Britain

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