Swiss railways manager defends centralised planning – Blair could learn something from him

A recent interview in the British newspaper, The Times, with a Swiss rail manager underlines the disastrous effects of privatisation on the British rail system. He points out that “You have to have a central command and control”. Blair should listen. Nowadays, from listening to Blair’s speeches, it would seem that socialism is considered a terrible thing, an old, useless ideology of the past. Forget about central planning, state investment and all that “rubbish”; privatise everything and let the market solve everything for you instead. This way we can have an ever more efficient and wealthy society. At least, that is the way the story goes in the dreams of the “New Labour” leaders. In the real world things are not so simple. Privatisation has meant the collapse of the living standards of millions of people. The infrastructure in Britain is crumbling. Give it another ten or twenty years and the British public services will be relegated to a lower division in the world league table and will find their place among those of the underdeveloped countries.

Privatisation does not mean higher and more efficient investment levels. On the contrary it means precisely the opposite. Private investors are looking for low investment and quick returns. Hence, inevitably, we have the dramatic fall in the quality of the services. By saying this our readers will say that we are stating the obvious. This is no surprise to anyone. But what if it comes from an old manager of the SBB (the Swiss Federal Railways)? On October 2, 2003 The Times carried an article comparing the British and Swiss railways in an interview with Peter Grossenbacher, who has been a high-ranking official of the SBB for the last 20 years. Grossenbacher had been asked to analyse the situation of the railways in Britain in order to understand why there are something like 35,000 signal failures and 15 million minutes of delays on train journeys each year. His answer was absolutely clear: private property of the railways is incompatible with their development: “In my country Rail 2000 [a major project of SBB] was planned for years. But in Britain it doesn’t make sense for the rail companies to have long-term plans. They don’t know from one year to another if they will get the money, or even if they will still have a franchise when the planned work is complete.”

That’s why, for example, in Switzerland the whole network was converted to electricity 70 years ago while in some British stations today we still have to suffer the smell of diesel fumes. And what about the ticket system? The British railways now offer seven different types of tickets with inevitable endless queues and so on. “Product differentiation” would reply one of today’s whiz kid economists. A senseless waste of time and money would be a more apt answer.

This poor old Swiss manager was astonished at the fact that because of the different companies that have been set up to run the railways, and because there is no co-ordination between them three or four different groups of staff are dealing with the same task. “It doesn’t make sense. They are doing the same job! What waste. What duplication”. In fact it has been calculated that in some cases privatisation has meant not a saving, but a tenfold growth of the number of people doing certain jobs compared to the old British Rail. More people instead of less! So what has happened to the “digital revolution” one might ask. The answer is always the same: the PCs, the software and the IT staff don’t come cheap... so let’s stick to pen and paper. One might ask why they don’t use pigeons.

Grossenbacher, absolutely astonished by the state of total chaos reigning in the British railways, concluded that, “You have to have a central command and control”. That is absolutely correct, but it doesn’t quite fit in with the “private is best” propaganda we have had to suffer for years. The interesting thing is that these statements have been made by a Swiss manager, not someone you would expect to have radical ideas. But what he says about the railways can also be applied to the whole of society. Capitalism as a system means waste, waste and more waste. That’s why we need to replace it with a democratically centrally planned economy. That’s why we need to bring the productive forces all together and place them in the hands of the working class. This is the only way of achieving a complete change in the quality of life and improving living standards for all.

But the Blair government will have none of this. It is ideologically blinkered. Instead of learning from the disastrous situation on the railways it is pushing ahead to transform the NHS into an equally disastrous privately run outfit.

Maybe Blair believes in the uncertainty principle. He obviously thinks it is better not to have people accustomed to a daily boring routine, where everything goes according to plan. He must think it makes for a more interesting life if we don’t know when and if this or that train is going to leave or even whether it will actually arrive at its destination. In this way life is always full of new and unpredictable things and thus becomes more enjoyable. Tomorrow we will have the same situation in the NHS. A patient will enter a hospital and will not know whether the surgeon will operate on the right part of his body. The patient may go in with a leg injury and come out without an arm, or he may get contradictory advice from doctors working for different companies.
It is absurd that a Swiss rail manager can see the benefits of publicly owned and centrally planned systems, but the leader of the Labour Party is blind to all this. Maybe we should elect Swiss managers to the leadership of the Labour Party…

October 2003