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Thursday 29th
posted by Morning Star in Features

The only way to have a public transport system worthy of the name is to have a fully nationalised railway, says GORDON MARTIN

ALL things transport have been making the news in Scotland for a number of months and the signs are this isn’t going to change in the dark winter months ahead.

Scotland’s railways have been subjected to an unprecedented level of scrutiny and criticism with opposition politicians, media columnists and some trade union officials calling for Nicola Sturgeon to sack her Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf MSP.

In my view the roots of the public’s dissatisfaction with Scotland’s railways goes back to the Scottish government’s ill-conceived decision to award the ScotRail franchise to a state-owned rail operator. 

Unfortunately for passengers and the ScotRail workforce, the state in question was not our own — and the Netherlands now benefits from profits made by its state company, Abellio, out of ScotRail.

A public-sector bid from Scotland was not allowed when the franchise was awarded to Abellio for a 10-year period.With profit the first and only concern of the profiteers at Abellio, a major dispute with Scotland’s biggest rail union RMT was highly predictable.

Abellio’s attack on the role of the guard on our trains brought a summer of discontent as industrial action spread across much of the Scottish rail network.

The Scottish government quickly showed its true colours. The normally very assured and competent First Minister committed a monumental blunder when she disgracefully inferred the strike was only about who pushed a button to open and close train doors.

While the SNP government very often claims to be on the side of working-class communities, it remains very much a political party wedded to capitalism. The First Minister should have taken the trouble to speak to disabled passengers or those travelling on Scotland’s trains who feel vulnerable in any way about how crucial the role of the guard is in making their journey a safer, more relaxing experience.

Thankfully the Scottish government and Abellio ScotRail finally saw sense and a negotiated settlement was reached which was favourable to RMT and which will see safety-trained guards remain in place.

Following on from our successful efforts to Keep The Guard on the Train, RMT has launched a high-profile “Safer Scottish Trains” campaign designed to ensure trains, railway stations and rail infrastructure in general are properly resourced and managed to ensure the best possible service is delivered.

Everyone, in particular disabled people, should be able to travel on a 21st-century rail network without having to check ahead days in advance to ensure staff will be in place to assist them with their journey.

At the same time, Westminster and the European Union have also intervened in a negative way which may have serious repercussions for rail workers and passengers in the years ahead.

 Earlier this month Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary in Theresa May’s rotten Tory government, delivered a speech which potentially takes the rail industry back to the complete fragmentation foisted upon the people of Britain by the hapless government of John Major in the 1990s. Grayling now seeks to reintroduce “competition” into rail infrastructure, maintenance and repairs.

Inevitably this will eventually lead to the complete break-up of Network Rail. The centralised standards implemented by this public-sector organisation will be discarded and profit and loss will become the decisive factor in deciding the standards for maintaining the rail infrastructure. This is a frightening scenario with potentially deadly outcomes and RMT will fight this with everything we have.

The latest plans for railways across the EU, the ultimate bosses’ club, are contained within the Fourth Railway Package which MEPs are voting on. These proposals make it mandatory to put rail passenger services out to competitive tendering. With the Scottish government recently beginning to engage with the rail unions and others regarding a public-sector bid for the ScotRail contract, the Fourth Railway Package underlines how fragile and fleeting this public-sector bid could ultimately be.

Scotland’s ferry sector has also had a fair amount of publicity in the last year or so, with RMT engaged in a high-profile, long-running and ultimately successful campaign to keep CalMac ferries in public ownership.

RMT stands by our assertion that the Clyde and Hebridean ferry service did not have to go out to tender under the Teckal exemption.

Unfortunately, the Scottish government are keen to be seen as good Europeans, despite the negative impact on the Scottish people, and meekly went along with directives from the EU.

The uncertainty for island communities and the stress for the CalMac workforce while their future was unclear was not high on the government’s agenda.

Unfortunately it looks highly likely that the workforce and the islanders on the Northern Isles are about to be put through the same uncertainty as their counterparts on the west coast.

The government is once again meekly following diktats from Brussels by putting the Northern Isles ferry service out to a competitive tendering process, despite the people of Britain voting to leave the EU, including a sizeable section of the Scottish working class.

RMT has a clear and principled position which is to insist that the Northern Isles contract is brought back into public ownership forthwith.

We demand an immediate end to the exploitation of eastern European seafarers. These workers, employed on a Scottish government contract, are being paid wages at a derisory rate while being denied the protection of a trade union agreement with wages and conditions covered by collective bargaining agreement. 

As part of our ongoing Save our Seafarers campaign, we have highlighted this disgraceful fact to the media and the public with our slogan SNP — Ships of Shame.

This is causing the government and, in particular, the Transport Minister a great deal of embarrassment. I make no apologies for this and I sincerely hope the embarrassment will lead to action before too much longer.

It is clear to everyone, with the possible exception of right-wing profiteering zealots, that the only way to have a public transport system worthy of the name is to have a fully nationalised railway, properly resourced, with adequate staffing levels in conjunction with a publicly owned ferry operator working exclusively on behalf of the ferry users and the Scottish government, and all monies raised reinvested instead of lining the pockets of private shareholders.

  • Gordon Martin is Scottish regional organiser of the RMT.