When we went off the rails

The flinty-faced men who run everything these days will call me a hopeless romantic, but I won't care.

They'll point to the bottom line of the company's accounts and shake their heads.

'This is a business,' they'll say, using that patient tone reserved for fools and children. 'It must be run as a business.' But I won't be convinced.

'Business', no matter how hard its backers try to convince us otherwise, does not belong in the same ontological category as 'Weather'. It's not something we simply have to live with because, no matter how much we talk about it, or complain about it, we cannot change it.

Businesses are the work of men and they are whatever men tell them to be. Bottom lines can be made to measure more than profit and loss.

The New Zealand Railways used to have 20,000 workers on its payroll. On the trains and railcars and electric units there were engineers, conductors and guards.

In the stations and marshalling yards there were station-masters and schedulers, pointsmen and shunters; and ticket-sellers seated in narrow booths.

In the railway workshops hundreds of highly skilled tradesmen designed and built locomotives and rolling stock, refurbished carriages and undertook running repairs and maintenance. Up and down the thousands of miles of track gangs of railway workers checked the signalling gear, maintained the rails and ties and sleepers, noted signs' wear and tear and assessed the risk of washouts and slips.

In between keeping the network safe, at 10 and 12 and three o'clock, you'd see them hunched around a primus stove, boiling a billy, smoking a fag, chewing the fat. Working men, gainfully employed, bringing home a living wage to their wives and children.

How do you fit that picture into your bottom line, Mr Businessman?

How do you measure the value of kids growing up in working families where Dad and Mum pointed with pride to the great machines that the brains and hands of working people had made? What price do you put on the mastery of the complex tools, the lathes and presses, that produced the components that kept the machines running? Or the lifetime of productive work that their makers could look back on, and their sons and daughters aspire to?

Where, on your bottom line, Mr Businessman, do you account for the vibrant neighbourhoods radiating out from the marshalling-yards and workshops at their heart? The shops and the supermarkets where people gathered and swapped gossip; the pubs and clubs where they argued about sport and politics?

Are they not worth as much as the working-class neighbourhoods of China?

If you were honest, Mr Businessman, you'd tell me (sotto voce) that, really, it's not THE bottom line that matters, but WHOSE.

The railways belonged to the people, but the road haulage companies belonged to their shareholders. Hardly surprising, then, that under the shareholders' political party roads and lorries began to take precedence over rails and locomotives. When budgets were being drawn up it was to concrete and bitumen that the funds were allocated - not diesel oil, steel and hardwood sleepers.

In other parts of the world, the symbols of modernity were high-speed trains and light-rail public transport networks. But, here in New Zealand, the future belonged to six-lane highways and 18-wheeler trucks.

In 1986 the party that had pledged to 'Save Rail' corporatised it. NZR became an SOE and from that moment on it was to be run as a business, with a business's bottom line, and a business's ruthlessly 'downsized' workforce.

At the stroke of a pen, all the benefits that could not be accommodated in the accountant's ledger ceased to matter. The benefit of having people gainfully employed and paying taxes instead of rotting on the dole. The benefit of working-class kids aspiring to be skilled tradespeople rather than patty-flippers at MacDonalds.

The benefit of having socially coherent and flourishing neighbourhoods rather than decaying factories and weed-infested marshalling yards full of young people without jobs getting high on drugs where their fathers and mothers once earned a decent wage.

But that's the way it was. New Zealand had joined the 'Real World' of global markets and bloodless calculators. Railways were so . . . well . . . 19th century. Horny-handed sons of toil pouring coal into puffing- billies. Away with them! Sell it to the highest bidders (and the friends of the highest bidders). Strip out the assets. Let the rest run down. Then (and this is where it's really important to keep a straight face) sell it back to the people for a price that has nothing in common with its bottom line.

Still, we romantics are patient folk. As the Earth's atmosphere heats up, and Peak Oil plays havoc with the truckers' bottom line, those despised and long-neglected rails are beginning to hum.

The Press