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Railwatch 075 - April 1998

Referee should not be a player

It is an appropriate time to talk about safety again, given that the inquiry into the Southall rail crash is under way and the manslaughter trial arising from the Watford accident has also started.

Something has to be done - and done quickly - about safety because it is being managed in a muddled way by the fragmented railway.

I am worried about overcrowding which is reaching dangerous proportions as a result of rolling stock shortages and train cancellations.

In an overcrowded train, train crew are sometimes not able to carry out safety-related work. For the passenger it is sometimes impossible to get on a train - or even get out at the right station.

Examples exist on the West Coast main line, Thameslink, Mersey Electrics and on Connex.

Some companies are increasing fares to restrict growth, which is unfortunate in the face of the Government's wish to encourage more people on to public transport.

The latest report from Mr Stanley Robertson, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Railways, does not appear to me to appreciate really worrying trends.

In a personal message, Mr Robertson writes in an optimistic manner, giving encouraging snippets for pro-privatisation people to pick up.

He also makes much of vandalism and trespass the seriousness of which was recognised by the British Railways Board in 1990.

A major exercise was launched in that year and by 1993, £3.5 million was committed to a problem which was costing the industry over 10 times that amount - in delays and damage to trains and infrastructure even without taking into account the effect of staff trauma.

Less than a year after Railtrack took over the infrastructure from BR in 1994, the initiatives all but ceased.

Now Mr Robertson warns that vandalism is the biggest safety risk facing the industry even though only £100,000 is being spent to combat it this year  - and that money is being spent by Railtrack on research to find out what the problem is!

On closer examination, there are other danger signals in the report.

It criticises the approach to safety of some rail companies thus:

"Too often a purely historical view of incidents is used and not the potential for harm."

But by saying that rail safety matters have improved, Mr Robertson is falling into a similar trap.

For instance, there was only one passenger death in 1996-7. But at least seven deaths - in the Southall crash - will have to be included in the 1997-8 report.

On the basis of those figures, would the conclusion be that rail safety suddenly deteriorated in 1997-8?

Yet the "potential for harm" almost certainly existed in 1996-7 and only became reality at Southall.

The report also highlighted the positive point that the number of rail staff killed fell to a record low level of two.

But it did not point out that because of engineering closures and less use of single line working - which allows trains to continue to run - more passengers are being transferred on to roads which are less safe than rail.

Less engineering work is also being undertaken overall. One only has to ride on the West Coast main line, or indeed from Liverpool Street to Cambridge, to feel the bumps and jolts - and to see wet spots on the tracks.

However, I believe the Railway Inspectorate showed courage, after the Southall accident, in issuing instructions to correct "overly liberal interpretations" of the rules.

The problem is that the inspectorate is now a participant, not just a monitor of railway operation.

We must address the organisational muddle which resulted from the abolition of the BRB (and its committee structure) which managed safety, leaving a respected Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways to audit and oversee. A referee should not be a player.

Peter Rayner

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