1 September 2022
New Internationalist (p.21-22)

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 In resolution to the dispute, Lynch says, he doesn’t just want redundancy threats withdrawn – he’s after ‘lower working hours, less working time, more holiday, a better work-life balance’ for his members.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 2016.

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.

Conrad Landin