Saturday, July 16, 2011

British railways hit the buffers

This story has been sidelined along with many others by the witless witterings of a world holding its hands up in dismay like a maiden aunt at the phone hacking scandal but any day now, the nation which gave the world the railway will no longer be able to build a single carriage or engine.

The nation which created the world’s greatest train journeys – across Canada, India, Africa, and South America – is giving away the last vestige of its proud heritage.

The nation which built France’s railway system and sold them 6,000 steam engines by 1880, the nation which not only built but drove Germany’s first train, is consigning another of its once-great industries to the history books.

That nation is, of course, our own. The Government has chosen to hand a multi-billion-pound contract to build trains for London’s new Thameslink line to Germany.

As a result, Britain’s last surviving train manufacturer is to lose 1,400 jobs at its Derby factory and the remaining 1,600 employees are working on borrowed time.

The Canadian owners, Bombardier, will run-down the plant while it finishes existing contracts.

Then it will almost certainly have to close – another nail in the coffin of this country’s once world-beating industry.

There are many reasons for the long-term decline of the British rail manufacturing. If the Derby train works were still British-owned, the bosses might have fought harder to save it.

But responsibility for this rests squarely with our benighted Coalition.

Its decision is unbelievable, inexcusable and unforgivable.

It’s unbelievable because no other industrialised country would let it happen. French railways buy French trains, German railways buy German trains, Japanese railways buy Japanese trains.

Only here are we prepared to destroy our own industry and throw away good, well-paid, productive, home-made, high-skill jobs.

The decision is inexcusable because Ministers are feebly trying to shift the blame for this pathetic decision onto either the last Labour Government or the European Union or, preferably, both.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond refuses to discuss the details of why Germany’s Siemens bid was better than Bombardier’s.

He claims that, if they had wanted to protect British manufacturing, the last Government should have adjusted the tender document when it first asked companies to bid for the contract.

And he says he might get sued by Siemens if he went back on the deal now.

These excuses won’t wash. The Government has had a year to do something about this before making a decision on who wins the contract.

In a complicated £3 billion deal it is not beyond the wit of even this witless crew, to secure British jobs, British skills and British expertise.

Labour and the EU may be partly to blame – but that is no excuse for this craven Coalition’s bid to pass the buck.

Mr Hammond points out that Siemens will create 2,000 jobs in this country as a result of the contract – but those jobs would have been created in the supply chain if Bombardier had won so that’s irrelevant.

The decision is unforgivable because Prime Minister U-turn-Dave has been trying to convince us his Coalition is devoted to the development of British manufacturing industry.

In March, he shipped the entire Cabinet to Derby in a PR stunt which managed to fool some captains of industry into the delusion that the Government actually cared about their future.

Yet the writing was on the wall a year ago when the Government cancelled an £80 million grant to Sheffield Forgemasters aimed at helping the company develop products for the nuclear power industry.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was accused of betraying his own Sheffield Hallam constituents.

He preferred to spend £80 million on a pointless national referendum on electoral reform, which shows where his priorities really lie.

The economy is struggling to recover from recession. Living standards are falling. Public sector workers are planning an autumn of discontent.

Why, then, would any half-way competent Government fail to take advantage of a rare opportunity to boost this country’s manufacturing industry?

The truth is the Government doesn’t give a fig about manufacturing. Its economists think our future is in selling services to other countries – we’re particularly good at banking, they say, to ironic jeers all round.

They think it’s “protectionist” to spend taxpayers’ money on our own manufacturers. And it would be – if there were a truly free market anywhere else in the world. But there isn’t.

Our political masters don’t care if companies like Cadbury and Jaguar, our sea and airports, our leading football clubs or our national newspapers are all foreign-owned.

Before he became a national joke, Business Secretary Vince Cable promised us a “Cadbury law” to protect British companies from foreign ownership.

But like Mr Cameron’s Cabinet meeting in Derby, he wasn’t serious. It was all to look good and grab a quick headline.

It’s still not too late for the old LMS works in Derby. Perhaps some of our MPs can earn their money for once.

U-turn-Dave could reverse this decision especially as it pulls the rug from under one of the Coalition’s other dreamtime schemes – the colossally expensive high-speed rail link between Birmingham and London.

If the trains aren’t even going to be built in this country, there goes yet another excuse for our political masters’ vanity project of the century.

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