The Bombardier Fiasco

The announcement of around 1400 job losses at the Bombardier rail works in Derby signals the beginning of the end-of-life stage for another great British manufacturing industry, resulting more or less entirely from the incompetence and stupidity of the ‘madmen in authority’. Their latest incarnation, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, was interviewed this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to explain why it was ‘correct’ to award the £1.4 billion Thameslink contract to the German company, Siemens, rather than to Bombardier, UK’s last rail producer. His explanation was based on his belief in ‘free trade and open markets’, although, to do him credit, he had noticed that ‘the Germans award contracts for trains to German builders’, and ‘the French routinely award contracts for trains to French train builders’. He described their approach as looking ‘more strategically at the support of the domestic supply chain’. Well what does he think the British government’s role is supposed to be? Is it to be looking after strategic British interests, or to promote an outmoded ideology that has proved time and again to be disastrous, in particular, to British manufacturing? Well, he and Vince Cable have written a letter about it to the Prime Minister! Good for them!

The Derby works started building locomotives and rolling stock around 170 years ago, a world pioneer. Its history and achievements over a century and a half were unequalled. Under British Rail, Derby became the main UK centre of rail research – the largest railway research complex in the world – as well as manufacture. Then, in the late 1980s it was set up by the ‘madmen’ for privatisation. As British Rail Engineering Ltd it was sold off to a combination of the conglomerate ABB and asset stripper Trafalgar House – they certainly know how to pick them. Ownership subsequently transferred wholly to ABB, and thence, via Daimler-Benz, to Canadian owned Bombardier.

So rail manufacture seems set to follow the route blazed by so many British manufacturing industries: steel, cars, trucks, motor cycles, machine tools, textiles, potteries, aluminium … the list is endless. Not all have been destroyed by politicians. Some failed as a result of incompetent management, some were victim of politically motivated unions, but almost all could have been nurtured by competent and strategically, rather than ideologically, oriented governments. The British workforce deserves better, as demonstrated by the hugely successful automotive industry located in Britain.

The Transport Secretary argued that there was nothing he could have done about the Thameslink decision. ‘Once you have set out at the beginning of the procurement process what criteria you will you use to judge the outcome (which of course was done by the previous New Labour government), you are then bound to use them. You do not have any discretion when you open the envelopes about how you award the contracts.’

That’s the ideologue speaking from his fervent belief in ‘free trade and open markets’. But it’s not true. He could have fought his corner within the EU rather than sheltering behind the European Procurement Directive to keep faith with the free trade and open markets ideology. It might be outrageous to suggest that the government should be motivated by Britain’s strategic interest. And Siemen’s might have been expected to appeal against such a strategically weighted decision, had the Thameslink contract been given to Bombardier. But they would have understood, and so would the British workforce, that the British government was on Britain’s side.

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