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Railwatch 074 - December 1997

Safety still in question

I have been busy as your society's safety advisor, following the tragic accident at Southall, 11 years to the day after the Colwich accident.

I have been speaking with several regional secretaries and they have dealt with local media. We in RDS have a responsible stance on the vexed question of safety.

I feel that I am in a slightly difficult position because I had, since 1991, said that the way the railway organisation was going with the loss of a clear-cut operating chain of command, was going to lead eventually to a situation in which different people would put different interpretations on the same rules.

I said also that different organisations would issue conflicting instructions to the men and women at the dangerous interface between the trains and the tracks.

Indeed I underlined this view in the last Railwatch suggesting that the form of privatisation chosen by the previous Government was flawed.

The strength of railway safety lay in a heritage which meant that each year the Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways reported on the previous year, comparing like with like and in general terms.

The whole industry strove to do better, learning from each incident and accident, strengthening rules and, if necessary adopting additional safety systems.

Because the railway itself controlled only its own safety, there was no need for the Inspecting Officer to be proactive and to issue instructions to the railway.

However, to me, the most significant thing about the Southall accident is that the Health and Safety Executive has felt the need to issue a direct instruction not to Railtrack which should be the keeper of the safety system, but to individual railway operators as well as Railtrack.

This, in effect, means that if and when another accident takes place the HSE is compromised.

I have lost count of how many inquiries that there are at the moment on Southall. Every one of the parties involved will be privately investigating their position.

Certainly there are preliminary investigations being undertaken by the HSE, there is Railtrack's inquiry and there is the police investigation. The public inquiry is yet to come.

While it would not be appropriate to comment on the possible outcome of the Southall inquiry, I think many people will agree that even to consider that one person alone can shoulder all the responsibility is to ignore all the confusion, all the different organisations that are involved, the signal sighting, the on-train equipment and the on-track equipment.

In my opinion if anyone is to blame for this accident it is the various Government Ministers of Transport with their civil servants and the BR Board who pushed through what I consider to be an unsafe and unsound organisation, while at the same time calling those of us who stood against it scaremongers.

The organisation now is based on the writing of safety cases, the acceptance of those safety cases, a belief that audit will take place and a belief in safety validation procedures.

The people involved say the right things, they write the right things.

But it begs the question: What actually happens in the depots and on the tracks after all that deliberation?

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