The Permanent Way, The Vaults

Of all the obnoxious artefacts of Thatcherite monetarism, Rail Privatisation, or the vandalism of British Rail, remains one of the most vivid. In 2003, following disasters like Hatfield, Southall, Ladbroke Grove, and Potters Bar, in which the outsourcing of network maintenance to private contractors lead to many deaths, David Hare interviewed key players. These included civil servants responsible for “balkanising” Britain’s railways – the profit motive replacing safety as a paramount concern, to contractors, the former Chairman of Railtrack, and finally victims of those horrific crashes – survivors and the bereaved. Their verbatim testimonials constitute this play, now revived in a hollow under Waterloo Station. There you listen to the miserable story unfold in a symbolic dark void beneath overstuffed commuter carriages.

If the devil’s in the detail, then Hare’s old polemic is a satanic ejaculation. There’s anger at New Labour, in power when the play was written, in the form of their pugilist Transport secretary John Prescott. He’s held up here as a symbol of Blairite hypocrisy and inaction; a failure to renationalise despite a 1997 election pledge and therefore a mandate to do so – an acceptance of an embedded orthodoxy that killed people.

The Conservatives, who started with the headline dream of introducing competition to the network to raise standards, despite the manifest structural impossibility of doing so, live through their proxies – bankers and civil servants, who reject all expert advice and any sense of civic responsibility, to engineer a ruinous policy that excludes engineers. In 2019, it would have been great to relate the notion of a sitting government taking a hammer to an institution that gifts the public freedom of movement, in the name of economic liberalisation, but sadly there’s no obvious example.

As the players ventriloquize Hare’s interviewees, we learn that a SPAD isn’t just a ministerial adviser who rationalises botched privatisations to sleepless Cabinet members, but an acronym for “signal passed at danger” – which inevitably is followed by bodies crushed at speed and lives ruined by government. The play’s other heart stopping bit of jargon is “VOL” – value of life; the shocking revelation that a dead man’s mother can be asked to estimate her son’s inherent worth based on his disposable income.

Hare’s tapestry of testimony throws up some unexpected villains; social comment as evidence. Monetarism, apparently, is so permeable it extends to its victims. One of the play’s most arresting moments has members of a survivor’s group recalling a vote to exclude the bereaved because they were primarily interested in attributing blame and responsibility. The survivors, by contrast, some of whom were company directors and office managers, empathised with the managerial class in charge of the rail franchises, content with a modest payout. One tells us he bought a car with his £18,000 compensation, thereby adding to already gridlocked roads and increasing the chances of being involved in another fatal accident by a factor of 17.

If there’s a not-quite-fatal flaw to Alexander Lass’s production, it’s lived experience reconstituted as heightened, and therefore affected theatrical performance. Inevitably, the demands of projection and articulation engender alienation; in some instances, overemphasis bordering on camp.

Would microphones and a more natural register have produced greater realism, and therefore closer emotional identification with the play’s cast of solemn witnesses? It would surely have stopped the wife of one Tory MP, whose name is an anagram of Allah Wreckers, falling asleep during an otherwise harrowing account of the Hatfield crash.

The accidents may have stopped, but the damage to passengers’ wallets, wellbeing and schedules continues for Britain’s beleaguered rail users. Hare’s play is a useful reminder of how we got here and what’s required to fix it; a run that will usefully cut across an election campaign in which one party will pledge to return the network to public ownership. If you need convincing, buy a ticket and consider nationalisation would be the first time something being disenfranchised would work to the public good.

The Permanent Way runs to November 17th. Photo credit: Nobby Clark. 

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