Without militant railway unions, there may no longer be a viable rail network to speak of.
They put a stop to the parasitic excesses of a system reconfigured to favor the extraction of profit from private companies over the needs of passengers.
The most striking example is the Delay Repay system. When trains are canceled or delayed, passengers are entitled to a full or partial refund issued by the train operators.
With trains so regularly disrupted, you might wonder how some are making a profit.
Haines-Doran points out that 60% of delays are actually caused by Network Rail, rather than the rail companies themselves, in which case the former automatically compensates for the latter to be passed on to passengers.
However, as many passengers are unaware of the scheme or many refunds would amount to just a few pounds, 63% of passenger compensation goes unclaimed. This means the train companies actually earn £1.1billion a year on delays.
A failing railway system is clearly a more profitable business than a working one.
After exposing these glaring systemic failures, Haines-Doran’s main conceptual innovation is the idea of a just transition for rail.
Just Transition emerged from the American labor movement in the 1980s while job-threatening regulations have been introduced regarding air and water pollution. Although it came to be used most often in association with the need to fair transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.
By applying a just transition to rail, Haines-Doran puts the climate emergency at the forefront of the case for fixing the rail system. It also extends the concept of just transition to a level of abstraction that seems synonymous with “socially just climate policy” rather than the specifics of worker protection.
While railway workers are certainly a strategically important workforce in the climate transition, the risks they face stem primarily from the neoliberal status quo rather than a modal shift that would expand the sector.
On the one hand, I wonder about the applicability of the concept of just transition to this context. On the other hand, we can remember that any moment of economic upheaval – whether expansionary or restrictive – can be used to erode workers’ rights and conditions.
What would such an upheaval look like? Haines-Doran and I clearly share a commitment to rapid decarbonization, a revitalized rail network, public ownership and empowered unions. On some details, however, we differ.
Given the rise of working from home, he argues for a reduction in overall travel demand under modal shift. Given the post-pandemic train ridership, I’m not convinced the trend is sustainable let alone desirable. Travel is good and we should advocate more, only by low carbon means.
Along the same lines, given the limitations of our “carbon budget,” Haines-Doran argues for a focus on improving our existing rail network with only limited additions. On the contrary, I advocated for a vision of public luxury through investment in high-speed rail between cities and countries.
The economic mobilization necessary for decarbonization will require a first wave of investments and the use of resources in the short term. Profitability is long-term, because we end up with infrastructures adapted to our ecological conditions.
Traveling by train is a pleasure. Our argument should be that it’s faster, cheaper and possible between every place imaginable. If we want people to get out of cars, we’re going to need a lot more trains and more tracks for them to get around.
How would we win such a system? As we continue to reel from the defeat of Corbynism, Haines-Doran is understandably concerned about the limits of left-wing electoralism.
Instead, he argues for passenger campaigns in alliance with those focused on other modes of transport such as buses. He is particularly interested in “don’t pay” campaigns promoting refusal to pay. the most striking example of which is the recent campaign on energy bills.
Whether derailed has a blind spot around the grassroots campaign is the lack of consideration for the high profile opponents railway construction.
The use of direct action by so-called environmentalists to resist HS2 should worry anyone asking for investment in rail expansion.
How to reconcile this reactionary trend of environmentalism with a political coalition interested in social and ecological progress is a difficult but crucial question.
Given the defeat of Corbynism and neoliberal capitalism’s weakening of workplace and community organizing, there is a clear need to forge new coalitions and innovative ways of grassroots organizing.
However, if our ambition is to transform the UK’s transport system as part of a historic paradigm shift, we cannot abandon the state as a battleground.
As I say in my own book, Burned: Fighting for Climate Justicethe state is the only political body capable of managing the climate transition on the scale and with the urgency required
Whether we seek to capture power from the state or influence it from outside, the question of how to harness it for a rail system that works for people and the planet is inevitable.
Chris Saltmarsh is co-founder of Labor for a Green New Deal and author of Burned: Fighting for Climate Justice.