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Railwatch 080 - July 1999

Waiting for the go from Railtrack

I sit down to write on the day Railtrack announces record profits of almost £430million which force me to ponder on the power that such an organisation wields and how strong is its press and public affairs arm.

"Now we can invest," said the chief executive on the radio this morning.

The spin is Railtrack has to have made these profits so it can now invest in the railway - the underfunded railway which it is claimed they inherited. What a lot of nonsense.

Of course the railway needed more investment. We struggled with successive hostile governments who starved it. But at least those governments ensured we did not muddle maintenance and replacement with real investment.

This Government either does not or cannot make that distinction. So we are treated to glossy network statements and powerful advertising and PR working at covering up issues - and neglect - which should be on public view.

I am however pleased to see that the signalling centre at Willesden about which I complained in Railwatch 79 has been put back in the plan.

Euston remodelling and other current schemes are welcome, not the hasty refurbishment of the neglected Severn Tunnel. The few genuine schemes uner way are but a drop in the ocean. To identify the need for investment in signalling, BR commissioned a report by the respected Brian Hesketh and his network-wide review became an accepted document which listed in order of priority all the necessary schemes.

Factors taken into account were wire degradation in interlocking and locations, lineside cable deterioration, obsolescence, silver migration and safety weaknesses particularly at level crossings.

Brian Hesketh listed 100 places and put down the latest start dates and the cost at 1994 prices.

Although space prevents me from listing them all here, I would estimate that only about 20% hve been tackled. Some of the highest priority work in the South East on heavy commuter routes went out to tender by Railtrack but were not proceeded with. The consequences are that some locations will become critical and have to be taken out of use causing massive delays and disruption. The effect will be to put thousands more people on the roads, thus increasing the number of accidental deaths because the road environment is so inherently unsafe.

Railtrack does invest in stations and property but I have complained before that railways should not be about marble halls selling pizzas but about running trains.

Railtrack is a property company making huge profits, but in my view it is failing to invest in a reasonable way.

Meanwhile the signal engineering profession is in the doldrums. We struggled to recruit and build up signal engineering teams to tackle all the essential signalling work. Now because Railtrack is not investing properly, at least 500 people are likely to lose their jobs as teams are disbanded in the various contracting companies.

When you disband teams, as I know from the electrification work in the past, it is a devil of a job to start up again.

Brian Hesketh's report was in the House of Commons library but is not there now, and this Government's spokesman in the Lords says it has been overtaken by RaiItrack's new investigation, so he does not propose to replace it.

It's a good read, the Hesketh Report, and well worth being put back in the library. I am disappointed in Mr Prescott who, like Railtrack promises "Jam tomorrow". PR seems to be the main concern.

The world will soon be wonderful though because Mr Branson, Mr Prescott and Railtrack are all promising to deliver. Everything is upbeat on the Channel Tunnel rail link and the West Coast main line.

But things look decidedly downbeat if you are a signal engineer with a mission to put right the degradation. Not too good if you travel on one of the areas listed by Hesketh that has yet to be addressed!

Clearly Railtrack is concerned for its "Safety Exchange" planned for spring 1999.

In 1998-99 "the rate of category A signals passed at danger (SPADS) leading to harm is now 19% worse than the 1995-98 average level". Some of Railtrack's profits could be well spent on safety. What better than to spend on resignalling old and potentially dangerous areas of operation?

Peter Rayner

Peter Rayner is a former BR operations and safety manager and author of On and Off the Rails.

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