The tracks of their tears

Television - Andrew Billenapplauds Ken Loach's elegy to our crumbling railways

For his first television film in 25 years, Ken Loach cast a bunch of comedians. This was appropriate, because The Navigators (2 December, Channel 4) told of the privatisation of our railways - a farce of the darkest hue. As Ian Hargreaves's admirably clear-headed documentary for Channel 4, A Secret History of Rail, demonstrated the night before, our railways have been run and manned by clowns for as long as anyone can remember. My favourite clip on his programme was of Robert Kee, the dapper former presenter of Panorama, circa 1980, telling British Rail's chairman and the Aslef leader Ray Buckton that they both sounded pathetic. But as Bill Rodgers, one of Britain's 30-odd transport ministers in the past 30 years, explained, they were only pathetic because, in their hearts, they had lost all hope.

The railway repairmen at the Sheffield depot certainly looked hopeless, even before privatisation. We joined them on the day the BR logo came down and that of East Midland Infrastructure went up - although it was soon replaced by yet another corporate badge, that of Gilchrist Engineering. There was much fun to be had from their boss's befuddled speech, explaining the brave new world offered by the disciplines of private enterprise. The new company's "mission statement" insisted that "deaths have got to be kept to an acceptable level". Pressed on this point, the supervisor Harpic (played by Sean Glenn - currently starring as Abanazar in his own touring production of Aladdin) explained that it meant two a year. A wag asked for volunteers.

But we were not dealing here with a group of dignified labourers of the type lamented in the more sentimental passages of Boys from the Blackstuff. The film opened with one of the railwaymen blowing a horn that could have come out of the Crimea. He was warning of an approaching train, a warning his colleague bull-headedly ignored. The railways looked ramshackle and dangerous from the off. Robbed of pride in their work and facing daily the chance of injury, no wonder the lads gave every impression of coming to work for the jokes. The depot cleaner was a stand-up act in his own right, whose trademark was to insert the word "fucking" into every sentence, as in: "It's enough to make you fucking swear."

But just because a system is risible, that does not mean privatisation cannot make it worse. The Navigators was full of visual images suggesting absurd and unworkable practices. Locked out of his ex-wife's house, Paul (Joe Duttine) attempted to post a bunch of flowers backwards through her letterbox. The men were told to smash up perfectly usable but redundant equipment because Gilchrist feared it might be bought cheaply by a rival consortium. A cruder visual metaphor had a train whizz past, shooting a jet of effluent at the engineers standing on the side of the line.

It would not suit either Loach or reality, however, to suggest that the new regime was simply mad when greed was what drove them insane. The apparently recklessly generous offers of voluntary redundancy quickly depleted the depot of men, so that it became "non-viable" and closed. The unemployed were then rehired as freelance labour. Although they had no holidays and no sick pay, their hourly rate was double what they were used to. The trouble was that untrained building-site labourers were equally impressed by this largesse and, having acquired personal track safety cards on the black market, travelled up from London for a few days' easy money.

It was perhaps inevitable, in a Loach film that allowed a trade unionist to admit "we used to get away with murder", that there would be a murder, committed by the boss class. Sure enough, one of the gang was hit by a train. Mick (a belligerent giant named Tom Craig), who hitherto had been so combative about safety that he had been blacklisted by the employment agency, immediately saw the implications: "We'll be fucked if they find him here. They'll know we have not been working safe." He persuaded his friend Paul to carry the injured man to the roadside so they could claim instead that he was hit by a car. In perhaps not the deftest bit of dialogue ever, Paul said that moving the injured man could kill him. But move him they did, and die he did.

The Navigators was weakened by unconvincing insights into Paul and Mick's love lives, accompanied (only possibly ironically) by some sexy sax from George Fenton. And despite the presence of so many veterans of the northern circuit, the humorous set pieces - such as persuading the thick cleaner that the chippy was giving out tins of sardines - were leaden. But at the rail sidings, Loach's hand was sure. As he proved with Riff-Raff a decade ago, he has a great affinity for the world of manual work, and a Marxist's understanding of how it links to macroeconomics. The plot contained a much broader analysis of the atomisation of the British workforce and its consequences. If the late Rob Dawber's script had been filmed a little nearer to when it was set, in 1995, The Navigators would have looked like alarmist fantasy. After the Hatfield crash and the collapse of Railtrack, it seemed closer to documentary.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick