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A 'New' Approach to Railway Public Ownership


Despite twenty years of privatisation, the British Rail 'arrows of indecision' continues to be used as an emblem by the privatised rail industry. We argue that it is time for a bold new strategy for the railways, which puts the worker in control.

The growth of the railwaymen's trade unions during the last decade has been only less inspiring than the militant spirit amongst the railwaymen themselves... what then, is the goal? We have described it as 'industrial self-management'. Nationalisation - a National Railway Council equally representative of the railway unions and...'all grades'. These constitute the first line of approach to complete self-government for the railway workers.

From National Guilds League: 'Towards a Nationa Railway Guild' (1917)


On the day that John McDonnel, Shadow Chancellor of Exchequer announced that the railways would be nationalised within the first five years of a Labour government, we ask a simple question: what can and what should nationalisation look like? We have a blank canvas before us, where we can calmly learn the lessons of the past and install a structure fit for the future? But time is upon us. Swift action is needed to develop this discussion into hard and workable policy.


Workers’ control of the railways has been a recurring rallying call for over 100 years. From around 1900, industrial syndicalists like Tom Mann were arguing for a nationalised railway system in which industrial democracy would take centre-stage. Similar sentiments emerged in the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR - now known as the RMT) and were heard down through until 1948 when the railways were nationalised under Clement Atlee's 1945 Labour government. But at no point in the post-war decades was any attempt made to introduce even the smallest measure of union or worker representation in decision-making under British Rail. This left British Rail as a monolithic state-centred operation which gave workers and passengers no democratic control or say in how it should be run.


Today, following the growth of a 'militant spirit', in the modern RMT union's actions to defend jobs and passenger safety in the privatised industry, a revival of the case for forms of workers and users' (both freight and passenger) control needs to be debated within the trade union movement. John McDonnell has given the clearest possible signal that a future Labour government will seek to open a public-owned railway to the widest possible participation in decision-making. The current guards’ dispute, in which train companies have threatened to remove Guards from trains, has also opened better channels of communication between the RMT and local/regional passenger groups.


As in the 1900s, when proposals for workers control went hand-in-hand with workers’ education, (for example through the Plebs League and Labour College movement, both supported by the NUR) today’s rail unions have an opportunity to prepare their members and staff representatives for a new role and to build programmes of training in functional skills and education on topics such as railway economics, transport planning, ensuing accessibility and accountability, working with local authorities and passenger groups and the impact of Brexit. The European dimension of rail trade unions can also be placed on a new footing, echoing the importance of European links in the early 20th century.


With the increasing likelihood of a Labour government committed to the return of the railways to full public ownership, NOR4NOR (Norfolk for the Nationalisation of Rail, www.NOR4NOR.org) calls on the constituent branches and trades councils in the London, East & South Trades Union Council (LESE TUC) to campaign for public ownership and to discuss now what forms public ownership might take, given that the Labour party aims to give full support to developing worker/union and community involvement in the running of the railways. Furthermore, we want to encourage local and regional campaigns to join in wherever possible, to provide programmes of training for members and staff representatives in industrial democracy and to seek ways of putting into place new regional commissions bringing together representatives of all interested groups, to develop concrete plans for the running of the railways that can be tailored to meet geographical needs.


NOR4NOR has been campaigning for public ownership in East Anglia for over two years. It has published a Charter that includes proposals at both regional and national levels, a charter that outlines key policies and priorities that are, in our view, essential for a publicly-owned system. At the same time, NOR4NOR believes that planning is required on the forms that public ownership might take and how this could be developed. NOR4NOR plans to hold a summit in the spring of 2019 in order to launch a detailed discussion of such plans.

© NOR4NOR / Norfolk for the Nationalisation of Rail Campaign
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