Paddington rail crash: product of capitalist competition

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Four days after the Paddington rail crash, the death toll is still uncertain, but will probably be well over 120.

The "public" has grown intelligent about such disasters. Alongside the horror at the carnage in the wrecked carriages, alongside the shock and grief of the bereaved, there has bee the shock and grief of the bereaved, there has been a powerful groundswell of anger. It is widely understood that an event like this cannot be explained away as an "accident". It is widely understood that this is part of a pattern.

A pattern on the railways: Clapham, Southall. A pattern in other transport systems: Kings Cross, Herald of Free Enterprise. A pattern in industry: Piper Alpha, the explosion at the JCO nuclear plant in Japan. And a pattern that is worldwide: it is also widely understood that the huge death tolls from the growing number of "natural" disasters - earthquakes in Turkey, Athens and Taiwan, floods in China, Bangla Desh and Mexico - are not "natural" at all.

The most idiotic tabloids may now be spitting on the memory of the "novice" driver who is supposed to have driven through the red light at Paddington. But there are too many simple facts which show that we are not just dealing with human error here:

  • the fact that the red light at Paddington is difficult to see because of its height and because there are obstacles in its way, and that trains have gone through it at speed eight times in the last six years;
  • the fact that the doors in the carriages jammed after impact, trapping many passengers inside;
  • the fact that the trains were using a highly combustible form of diesel which created the fireball that claimed so many lives
  • and, above all, the fact that after the Southall crash, and after all the solemn government pledges to spare no expense in improving safety, no action was taken to install failsafe mechanisms. On the day after the crash an ITN report revealed that government and Railtrack had coldly calculated that the recommended ATP safety system was just too expensive. Four days later, Channel 4 news showed that the lay-out of the tracks at Paddington, with its very high speed approach route, had been specifically designed to work in conjunction with ATP. Government cuts made sure this never happened and so opened the way for the crash.

And this is why there is so much anger: it is widely understood that lives have once again been sacrificed on the altar of profit. Just as in Japan, where corners were cut in the most blatant manner in response to increasing economic competition. Just as in Turkey, where houses built s in Turkey, where houses built cheap to boost profits collapsed like matchstick models.

There are those - especially the Labour left, the unions, the SWP etc - who blame privatisation for the Paddington crash, and say the answer is to "re-nationalise the railways". But this false solution can only prevent people from understanding:

  • that we live in a capitalist world, and the capitalist state can only operate according to the pitiless laws of capitalism. Nationalised firms, even nationalised economies like China, still run on the profit principle;
  • that in such a world, racked by an insoluble crisis of overproduction, every enterprise, private or state, has no choice but to cut costs if it is to survive, whether the costs involve workers’ wages directly, or investments in safety.

It’s the same frenzied competition of each against all which that drives capitalism to pollute the air and the water, to devastate the rain forests, to disrupt the whole planet’s climate. And in the final analysis it’s the same struggle of each against all which sharpens old ethnic hatreds, pushes more d ethnic hatreds, pushes more and more local and regional powers to make war on neighbouring states, and compels the world’s biggest powers to engage in more and more military adventures, like the bloodbaths in Iraq and Yugoslavia.

In brief: this whole society is itself a runaway train pulling humanity towards catastrophe. But the red light has not been passed. It is still possible to change direction if. those who have built the train with their labour realise their power - if the world working class fights for its interests, gathers its forces, and revives its old project of a society based on production for human need. And despite Blair’s proclamation that "the class war is over", it continues to smoulder. Not only that: the workers are more and more faced with the need to struggle over issues which affect the common welfare: like the Tower Hamlets housing workers who struck over the council’s attempts to close neighbourhood housing offices; like the Paris metro workers who struck against physical attacks on their colleagues; like the 1300 Ford workers, Asian, black and white, who walked out in response to management racism; like the train drivers who are prepared to take action for increased safety.

These are small but significant signs that the working class can use its collective strength to oppose the sacrifices that capitalism demands. And if it can do this on a local scale, then it can do it on a world scale, because the working class everywhere has the same interests in the face of this system of death and disaster.

International Communist Current

8.10.99

Supplement to World Revolution number 228. World Revolution is the ICC’s paper in Britain. For contact, write to BM Box 869, London WC1N 3XX.