LONDON — Is Britain in crisis? Many people think so, after a month in which large swathes of England have been inundated by filthy flood water. Television news showed comic snippets of boats in the streets rescuing old ladies and dogs, snaps of sturdy men and women counting their blessings as the flood water carried away their furniture.
But it’s not the floods that have brought the word crisis to people’s lips. It’s not even the seasonal tales of the National Health Service that never has enough beds, enough nurses, to cope with the winter inundation of the elderly and infirm stricken by cold-weather illnesses. It’s not even the local council that has financially collapsed leaving the garbage cans unemptied and overflowing and mounds of garbage in the streets, shoulder-high and being excavated by dogs and rats.
No, the sense of crisis is the collapse of transport, making any journey anywhere and anyhow except on foot, a feat of heroic endurance. Neither the underground system in London, the tube, nor the rail network are working properly or even half-way well enough; so people take to cars and taxis, and these cars and taxis block the roads and slow speeds to under 15 kph to stutter through the city. It feels, as you reach an underground platform (the escalator is broken), stare at a blank display board (broken) then cram yourself into a packed carriage only to find yourself stuck in a tunnel because a signal has broken, or a rail is unsafe, or there is flooding further up the line, that nothing is working. It is bewildering and frightening; a civilized society needs to be able to take for granted its freedom of movement, and British society can’t. So it is not civilized.
It is quite possible to feel and believe that there is no crisis. And most people most of the time do feel that there is no crisis. There is not a general breakdown. There is a particular breakdown of public transport. Almost everyone agrees that this, like the problems of BSE, is one of the worst legacies of the Thatcher years in which any notion of “the public” was so relentlessly scorned and derided. Public facilities simply cannot work without an overruling role for the state. In the years of privatization, the only question asked was about money. To save the public purse from having to invest money in public facilities, hand these facilities over to private companies that, spurred by their intrinsic drive to make money, would put money in to get money out, in the form of profit.
The other qualities that state organization offered, however, lay beyond the reach of the profit motive. Coordination, a degree of centralization, the primacy of health and safety objectives, the retention of staff in a stable career structure, the morale of staff who believe they are providing a useful service rather than making money for an anonymous corporate owner. None of these, so necessary for a public service to work properly, can be provided by a cluster of competing, uncoordinated private companies, answerable to their boards and shareholders — not the public.
If there was a single event that sparked this sense of crisis it was the derailment of a train just north of London. This happened because a rail was cracked. The track, since privatization, is owned by a company called Railtrack. Railtrack is barely integrated — barely on speaking terms it seems — with the many companies that own the trains, and/or organize the train service. Although it is just about feasible that this sort of fragmentation might work in a country with a large land mass and limited routes between major cities, in a small, densely populated country like Britain with most of the population living outside the cities, a fragmented rail service makes no sense. Maintenance staff, had, apparently, long ago detected the crack in the line that caused the disastrous train derailment, but nothing was done about it. Now, in a panic, or a fit of pique, Railtrack has ordered thorough checking of all rails for cracks. Large sections of rail have been closed, leaving hundreds of thousands of people with no means of getting from one place to another — unless they go by car.
I have no immediate answer to this (no one does), apart from the obvious one of altering the structure of rail management, by law, to ensure that its primary purposes are coordination and safety. How happily does private capital sit with that regime?
Yet an unexpected byproduct of this transport failure must be the realization of how much, how desperately, against all the odds, people want to spend time with other people. The utopian notion that floated out of a few think tanks a decade ago, that we could all live in “virtual communities” making contact via telephone and video, modem and fax, is wrong. It is not utopian — people like to meet and mingle in the flesh — and it is not efficient. No technology can replace the creativity, excitement or reassurance that is generated by people meeting with each other in the same room.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.