Railways: Back on track?

On every continent, the railways are experiencing a renaissance. But what will it take to reshape them in the interests of people? Conrad Landin investigates.

Railways: Back on track?

On every continent, the railways are experiencing a renaissance. But what will it take to reshape them in the interests of people? Conrad Landin investigates.

In the buffet car of the 7.20pm departure from Bucharest North station, Phil, a US citizen travelling home to his flat in Kyiv, and Frank, a Canadian retiree touring Eastern Europe, have got talking to Jaroslav, a young Ukrainian merchant sailor on shore leave.1 The train is due to arrive in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, the following morning. It’s Eastern Europe’s turn to be hit by this summer’s extreme heatwave and the Soviet-era (and un-air-conditioned) train’s narrow corridors are crammed with people craning their necks out of the windows for some ventilation. Phil and Frank wave to me as I pass them and I pause to say hello. Within seconds, Jaroslav has appeared at the orange formica table, on which he slams four Moldovan beers. Without even asking, I’ve been admitted to the club.

While a railway worker and his associates spread out plates of smoked sausage, salad and bread on the table behind, we are joined by three young Moldovans. Irina, the most vocal of the trio, opens a bag of caviar-flavoured bread chips she has just bought at the buffet counter. She explains they are returning from a cycling expedition to Bulgaria and they made sure their train home would have suitable facilities for a party. Pulling out her phone, she puts on Moldova’s entry to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Trenuletul’ by Zdob și Zdub and the Advahov Brothers. ‘This is a famous train,’ Irina explains, but I know this already, thanks to the song she’s playing, which tells the story of the journey:

Hey ho! Let’s go

Folklore and rock’n’roll

Pleacă trenul! Unde esti?

Chișinău la București!1

Eventually we each head back to our compartments for some sleep. At around 4.00am we are woken as the train screeches to a halt and an ecstasy of shouting erupts on the lineside. This is an event rehearsed every night at rail border crossings all along the frontier of the former Soviet Union. Rusty toolboxes are opened by workers who take out hammers and pickaxes. After some loud but muffled greetings between those on the ground and the crews of cross-border trains, a system of hydraulic jacks cranks into action. Our entire train is lifted into the air – while the wheels remain on the tracks. The wheel-sets are then shunted away and replacements – in a different gauge – are inserted in their place. The carriages are lowered back down and, once lengthy passport and customs checks have taken place, a fresh locomotive can haul us onwards.

This marvel of engineering reminds us of few truths. First, that almost two centuries after the Manchester and Liverpool Railway pioneered the very notion of motorized inter-city transport, the railways still overcome numerous obstacles to traverse borders and connect disparate communities. Second, that the physical challenges of running such a network are considerable. And finally, that the global rail network is a product of imperial dominance, expansion and competition – explaining the different gauges for the former spheres of influence of East and West.

It’s a role in the global order which in recent years has been coming under considerable scrutiny. Last year a consortium of universities and museums in the north of England announced a new project investigating the historical connections between the railways, steampower and slavery. JP Daughton’s book In the Forest of No Joy, published last year, has shone a light on the horrors of the construction of the Congo-Ocean Railway and raised the prospect that the huge migration it caused may have been instrumental in the early spread of HIV. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the 2014 Booker Prize, rendered in fiction the exploitation and tragedy of imperial Japan’s use of prisoners of war in constructing the Burmese Railway in the 1940s.

Railway renaissance

This critical perspective is getting a hearing, in part, because the railways are in the spotlight as the century of King Car finally comes to an end. Covid-19 hit automotive sales hard, in spite of many governments actively encouraging car use as an alternative to public transport during lockdowns. Though there have been much-reported reductions in the use of public transport, a recent study from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions found that Britain has seen a sustained reduction in car use too. Even if just half of the June 2021 home-working patterns were maintained, this could result in a 16 per cent reduction in car-driver mileage compared with pre-pandemic levels. ‘We have decoupled private car use from GDP,’ the report’s co-author Iain Docherty told RailReview magazine.2

What will it take to rebuild our railways to combat the inequalities of the world, rather than exacerbate them?

France, meanwhile, is banning short-haul flights, and there are blueprints for new high-speed lines on every continent, including a plan to connect every political and economic capital in Africa by 2043. Rail travel’s undoubted green credentials make it an obvious means for reducing emissions (see ‘The Facts’. UN secretary-general António Guterres recently argued that ‘sustainable railway systems should be upgraded and expanded’ for the sake of a ‘global shift towards renewable energy’. In spite of lower footfall – which is projected to recover and then continue to grow – the use of the railways to transport essential workers and goods during the pandemic made the case for them stronger than ever.

Yet there is significant cause for concern. New railway projects in Africa, funded by the Chinese state under its ‘Belt and Road’ development programme, have attracted accusations – albeit much-contested ones – of a new imperialism through ‘debt-trap’ economics. In India, one of the most significant new railway projects since independence is being fuelled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire for the ‘rejuvenation of our old pilgrim sites and to provide best facilities to devotees’ – raising troubling questions over his government’s use of public money to centre Hinduism in the national identity. In a rapidly expanding list of countries including Britain, the US and South Korea, there is – at the time of writing – significant industrial unrest between railway workers and employers over job losses, pay restraint and assaults on working conditions. Vast swathes of the world continue to have no rail connections at all and prospective schemes overwhelmingly focus on driving economic growth, natural resource extraction and globalized capitalism.

It’s the needs of the people that demand a revival and expansion of the railways: basic ecological survival, mass-capacity transport for dealing with emergencies from wars to Covid-19, and access to resources and opportunity for deprived communities and those living in the Global South. But it’s the wants of capital and authoritarian governments that look set to benefit. What will it take to rebuild our railways to combat the inequalities of the world, rather than exacerbate them?

Profits and profiteers

This is a question that can’t be addressed without confronting the pernicious influence of capital, which fuelled the ‘railway mania’ following the development of the steam engine in 19th century Britain and has cast a long shadow over the railways ever since. This was the age of Midland Railway’s George Hudson – only spared jail for his corruption and personal pilfering from company coffers thanks to the immunity he enjoyed as a Member of Parliament. The Great Northern Railway’s registrar Lionel Redpath meanwhile trousered 400 times his annual salary through a web of phantom shareholders and ‘ghost shares’, and ended up transported to penal servitude in Australia.

These extreme cases stemmed from a culture of rampant speculation, financial bubbles and egregious profiteering. But as new lines became operational, a problem arose which has held fast ever since: that it is nigh on impossible to run railways as businesses for profit in and of themselves. In 1938, 15 years after Britain’s numerous railways were ‘grouped’ into just four companies, which should have reduced losses considerably, only one, the Great Western Railway, paid a dividend. When nationalization finally came in 1948, the UK government was following the logic of its own colonial administrators: that railways should be run as strategic assets. In India, Governor General Henry Hardinge had argued as early as 1843 that the railways would be beneficial ‘to the commerce, government and military control of the country’ and it was the East India Company that initiated and supplied several directors for the first railway on the subcontinent. In British-controlled Africa, Cecil Rhodes championed the notion – only partially realized – of a ‘Cape to Cairo’ line. Though initially set up as private enterprises entangled in the business-military-political axis which underpinned much of British imperialism, most Empire railways were in state hands well before Britain’s own.

But public ownership did not end a culture that has repeatedly put cost-savings before safety. Nor did it discourage unscrupulous chancers from flocking like vultures to the lineside. In his new history of British Rail, transport journalist Christian Wolmar chronicles how the successful lobbying by shareholders of the ‘big four’ railway companies saddled the nationalized operator with a $1 billion debt ($40 billion in today’s money) to the former private owners of the railways’ assets, on a fixed annual interest rate of three per cent. The purse-strings were tightened to such a degree that journey times grew longer than they had been before the war. In the US, where tracks have remained in private ownership after passenger services were nationalized, private railroads have been found to systematically de-prioritize passenger services – provoking extensive delays – over more lucrative freight trains.

From the 1970s onwards, publicly owned railways in many parts of the world laid the ground for their own privatization, both through programmes of cuts to improve railway balance sheets and through increasing use of contractors in train-building, track maintenance and cleaning. By the time of re-privatization in the 1990s, it was accepted that private companies would only be interested if they could cherry-pick profitable routes or were offered a heavy subsidy for operating other lines. The European Commission’s ‘railway packages’, meanwhile, sought to entrench both fragmentation and private sector participation. This led to industrial unrest on the French railways in 2018. India has recently followed the EU’s lead in legislating for private competitors to start rival services on popular routes, though officials have reportedly now put this on the back burner.15

Privatization, cost-cutting and criminal negligence on the part of private corporations are considered to be major contributing factors to deadly rail disasters across the world. The 1987 King’s Cross fire saw 31 people die after accumulated debris caught fire under an escalator – London Underground had made cuts ahead of privatizing tube cleaning. Public inquiries into a series of deadly rail crashes shortly after British Rail privatization found significant failings resulting from attempted cost savings. More recently, both government officials and private sector bosses were imprisoned for negligence and defrauding the state following the 2012 Buenos Aires train crash, in which 51 people lost their lives.

Fit for people

India's trains were designed to serve imperial interests – with the directors of the sub continent’s first railway drawn from the ranks of the East India Company. Here passengers prepare to eat on board a modern-day sleeper train.

Fit for people

But though private sector profiteering and state negligence have always been integral to the railway story, there is another history that can give us hope in the project of building a global rail network fit to serve the people. And it starts with the those who keep the railways running; not the ministers, shareholders and managers – but the drivers, guards, track workers, cleaners and ticket clerks without whom the railway couldn’t function. Labouring in a sector with its own language, time and laws, their identity and solidarity is perhaps the strongest of all sectoral workforces. The recent reports that Belarusian railway workers have sabotaged rail links to the border are a case in point, and echo action taken by Scottish train drivers who refused to transit weapons in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Privatization, cost-cutting and criminal negligence on the part of private corporations are considered to be major contributing factors to deadly rail disasters across the world

Rail unions, meanwhile, have been crucial not only to winning improvements to safety, pay and conditions in their own workplaces, but also to building wider movements for social change. Ever since the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – when rail workers formed the core of the movement which brought about a short-lived communist city government in St Louis, Missouri – it has been widely recognized that the participation of this workforce is essential for the success of any general strike. Even when railways make up only a minority share of the transit of people and goods, strike action can be far more effective on the railways than within road transit. That’s because the skilled labour withdrawn from the railways is much harder to replace: it takes months or even years to train workers for some roles. ‘In France we say that the rail workers are the locomotive of the social movement,’ according to David Gobé, a longstanding French railway worker and CGT union official who now chairs the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s railway section. Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef in Britain, describes the railways as a ‘traditional cradle-to-grave industry’ which ‘for most people, once it’s grabbed hold of them, they stay in the industry till it’s time to retire’.

Part of rail unions’ success is their refusal to be bound by the false constraints of acceptable debate in politics and the public sphere. In particular, Britain’s RMT has repeatedly refused the unspoken directives of recent decades that unions should aim for ‘realistic’ pay settlements and that – while they should be free to criticize employers’ pay policy – they should not interfere with structures of governance of their industry. When he raised the issue of profiteering in the rail industry in an interview discussing this summer’s strikes, RMT assistant general secretary Eddie Dempsey was told by TalkTV presenter Adam Boulton: ‘That’s not your direct responsibility.’ Unfazed by Boulton’s dismissive attitude, Dempsey replied: ‘Absolutely it is. I’m not on about management pay, that’s a matter for another trade union. I’m on about the mass profiteering.’

A data deep-dive on the railways.

Also in this issue...

The promised land

New railways could help Tanzania trade with its African neighbours – so long as they are not just a beacon of the new imperialism. Priya Sippy reports.

The will for a permanent way

Low-friction, high-capacity technology – plus environmental benefits. What’s not to love about railway expansion, asks Gareth Dennis.

Cheminots of fire

Five railway trailblazers who changed the course of history. Words by Conrad Landin, illustrated by Megan Park.

‘We’re going to be having punch-ups’

Tom Haines-Doran on why railway workers are good at industrial action.

Plus features on the skateboarders of Palestine, a mining giants maneuverings in Serbia and the legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship. Read more about Issue 539 here.

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Romance, culture and social class

Moldovian rock band Zdob și Zdub teamed up with traditional musicians the Advahov Brothers to record Trenuletul, which tells the story of the overnight train between Chișinău and Bucharest.

From opposing privatizations across the world to advocating for free and integrated public transport, rail unions have taken an interest in their industry that goes beyond the bread and butter of industrial relations. In so doing, they have taken advantage of both the industrial identity which the profession instills in its members, and the railway’s unique role in the popular imagination. Filmmakers’ love affair with the train goes back to the beginnings of cinema, not least because the carriage offers a convenient setting for chance encounters between strangers. We rarely see boardrooms or shareholders in these films: decisions are taken instead by ordinary workers – and sometimes passengers step up to take responsibility. The train’s value here is clearly a social one: based on its unique ability to encourage interactions in a way in which airplanes and buses simply don’t.

With rapidly increasing demand for cars in the Global South, and richer countries dumping polluting used vehicles on Africa, it is in every country’s interest to deliver a significant modal shift to rail

Trains do, of course, boast some of the most obvious class boundaries in the world. But when there’s standing room only it becomes increasingly difficult to enforce this, while long-distance trains have traditionally – though vanishingly – had zones of crossover. When Jenny Diski travelled around the US for her 2002 travel memoir Stranger on a Train, she found Amtrak’s smoking cars to be a melting pot of background and culture: their occupants’ only common feature being their nicotine addiction and aversion to flying or coach travel. Chloe Shields, a researcher at the University of Strathclyde, is investigating the space of the dining car on Britain’s pre-nationalization railways. A dining car might be open to passengers of all classes of travel, she explains, but stewards were often encouraged to seat passengers away from those of different backgrounds. ‘It’s a space where there’s potential for people to meet but it’s also a need maintain social boundaries and social norms.’ Though the dining car’s traditional guests were wealthier passengers, railway companies also marketed excursions including sit-down meals to industrial towns in the north of England. ‘I wouldn’t say it was a frequent thing, it was more like a holiday opportunity,’ says Shields. ‘If you were in Yorkshire or Lancashire you would get an excursion train to somewhere like Blackpool or Scarborough, and potentially as part of that package you might have the opportunity to eat in a dining car, or eat out in a very different way.’

Why is this important? Primarily, because it shows a level of human resistance to the demarcations imposed by the interests of capitalism and imperialism – which built the railways and still control them. Like the solidarity of railway workers, the ways in which passengers seek each other out on trains is a sign of hope for the type of railway we can work to rebuild. It’s perhaps a nostalgic view of the railways given how so many journeys are passed in ignorance of fellow passengers these days: but it shows it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for railways to operate as a social institution rather than simply a means of getting from A to B. Amid the climate emergency, long-distance travel by any means should become something we do less – and so where we still get to experience it, it’s worth making pleasurable for all travellers regardless of class.

In Moldova, I travel on Zdob și Zdub’s tour bus to a concert in the small town of Budesti. It finishes with a rousing rendition of Trenuletul, for which the crowd goes wild. The song was written, the band’s lead singer Roman Iagupov tells me the following morning in a Chișinău cafe, at the height of the pandemic. ‘We had no concerts, we stayed here, we had no money, we were lost a little bit,’ he confesses. ‘And I said we must do something; we have time for creativity.’ After meeting traditional musicians Vasile and Vitalie Advahov they combined forces and travelled to the Romanian countryside for some intense songwriting and improvization. Iagupov had the firm idea that ‘this song must be about a train’ – and the rhythm he had in mind, like those of so many purveyors of train songs before, replicated that of a train. ‘I had no idea of the trains, only the feeling.’

Solidarity and integration

Returning home to Glasgow, I’m on the picket line at Central Station for the RMT’s first national strike since 1989. The crowd is huge: today trade unions from across Scotland have mobilized to support the striking railway workers. RMT organizer Dennis Fallen has the megaphone, and leads the assembled masses in a humorous song about Boris Johnson. It’s one of many rallies taking place across the country, with the union’s general secretary Mick Lynch having reached cult status. In resolution to the dispute, Lynch says, he doesn’t just want redundancy threats withdrawn – he’s after ‘lower working hours, less working time, more holiday, a better work-life balance’ for his members. ‘If there’s going to be a change to the way work is structured, we want changes to the way conditions are structured,’ he tells me. ‘But if they just say we want to make the changes to maximize their profits, they’re going to have a problem.’

In Glasgow’s East End, I visit Ellie Harrison, an artist and transport campaigner currently working on Bus Regulation: The Musical – a theatre project fundraising for a run in Merseyside in northwest England. She is also the co-founder of Get Glasgow Moving, a campaign group that has been calling for integrated ticketing across the city’s bus, train and subway networks since 2018.

Harrison’s focus is currently on buses because she believes ‘bus users just don’t have the voice that rail users have’, but she believes ‘fixed transport infrastructure’ like trains make up ‘the core of the network, and the buses fill in the gaps’. What she would like to see rolled out in Scotland is the ‘Swiss model’, under which citizens are guaranteed basic (but fairly comprehensive) levels of public transport in law. ‘I think that would be a real game-changer, to get something like that. If there’s a statutory duty and local authorities have to deliver it, then hopefully they will think about the most cost-effective and reliable ways of delivering it.’

An additional challenge in the Global South is that so many existing networks were built to serve the interests of imperialism. To this day they are often largely focused on resource extraction. But that’s not to say that it’s impossible to re-focus their assets. Mexico’s railways were first initiated under Emperor Maximilian’s imperial French regime in the 1860s and the national network is now largely either freight-only or disused. But plans are afoot to develop new mass transit networks using existing tracks and former London Underground trains adapted for battery operation by the British-based VivaRail. On board one such train in Glasgow during a test run at COP26 last year, I met Mauricio de Leon, technical commercial director of Mexican rail development company Remed. He explains that around his home city of Monterrey, he can envisage a network which would require 113 kilometres of track – of which 74 kilometres already exists. ‘Most of these disused lines, the right of way already exists and the ownership already exists; they are mostly under the authority of the local, mass transit system,’ de Leon adds.

Admirable as his company’s initiative is, it is hard to see such projects getting off the ground on the required scale if left to the private sector. Instead, we need to see governments acting in an entrepreneurial fashion, with democratic structures in place to put workers and passengers at the heart of network and service planning. New urban and regional transport systems will inevitably include buses, water transport and a significant element of walking and cycling routes. But putting rail at their core would create a permanent infrastructure which will be far harder to undo when a particular government gets queasy about the upfront costs. With rapidly increasing demand for cars in the Global South, and richer countries dumping polluting used vehicles on Africa, it is in every country’s interest to deliver a significant modal shift to rail for the sake of survival.

It will, however, require a spirit of international solidarity which actively restores the trust lost between post-colonial economies and the wealthier governments which have exploited them. Existing institutions like the UN can play their part, but a new international community of publicly owned railway networks properly empowered to invest in infrastructure could make a real difference. It would, of course, need an equally powerful international community of passenger groups and trade unions to hold it to account. Since COP26, a working group of transport activists organized under the auspices of the International Transport Workers Federation has been making a start on this very task.

In order to spike the illusion of railway profitability once and for all, the obvious solution would be to make urban and regional transport free at the point of use – paid for through progressive taxation and new levies on the businesses which will benefit the most from it. But we should not kid ourselves that there will be no industrial unrest, even amid worthy railway development. Standing with the workers in such disputes will be vital for keeping the projects from slipping towards the railways’ status quo. The task ahead is monumental: but amid climate change, war and persistent inequality, so is the threat facing humanity. Let’s get on with it.

Passengers’ names have been changed.

1 Translation: ‘The train is leaving, where are you? Chișinău to Bucharest!’ 2 Paul Clifton, ‘Less is more? Rail’s role in post-pandemic travel’, RailReview, July 2022.  

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