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Railwatch 081 - October 1999

Signals set for a safer railway

I am not going to write in depth on safety issues in this review for there is a lot more to come out from the Southall Inquiry. Watch this space!

However, as I sat down to write this piece, deputy prime minister John Prescott announced that TPWS (Train Protection and Warning System) will be introduced. It is a move in the right direction and although it is not as effective as ATP (Automatic Train Protection), it would be silly to reject it as a cheap solution. Half a loaf is better than none.

The opportunities privatisation provided to put Britain ahead in terms of ATP have been completely missed. Had more realistic money values been used for the sale of Railtrack or the finances of the rolling stock companies, cash could then have been provided for ATP. The immoral issue is that, even with the dreadful sell-off of the national assets, it has been calculated (Economist magazine) that the private companies which formed the former British Rail enjoyed the combined profits of over £1 billion in one year, much more indeed than the cost of installing ATP nationwide.

Some of the claims made for TPWS are exaggerated. It would not have prevented all the signals passed at danger as it is claimed. Railtrack itself spoke of halving the number. Mr Prescott is wrong to claim more, just as Mr Ancram, chairman of the Conservative party, is wrong to say ATP would have cost six times as much.

The cost of privatisation alone would have paid for ATP. As it was, the run-up to privatisation was such a hurried, muddled affair, ATP was put on the back burner for four wasted years, and more lives were lost. As I have said before, I did not oppose privatisation in principle, only the way it was done, which made safety more difficult to manage, fragmented the responsibility chains of command and caused performance to drop.

Performance and customer satisfaction are at the lowest ever and it was this aspect I was going to cover until the politicians of both colours started making me jump up and down! The different companies all argue one with another, contract upon contract upon penalty and so it goes on. Regulation of trains is a shambles. Signallers are supposed to be even-handed and give each "customer" a fair crack. So an express gets delayed by a slower train or by what I would call silly regulation.

It sets off again. now about five minutes late, and what happens? It's a late-running train to another signaller, so it gets a further check, as a slow train takes preference. There is no overall decision taker. That's what is wrong.

The timetables are slack because of the stupid Passenger's Charter which causes companies to put unnecessary time into the schedules. So a normally running train is sometimes 10 minutes early while, next day, it is late because of a muddled piece of operating. The most effective railway is the tightly timed, well-disciplined system. More power should be given to Railtrack to run the total service, less say should be given to the train companies, who get the blame, but cannot influence their performance. The worst of both worlds.

It's no good Virgin, for example, or any other company, having performance managers and people dressed in fancy clothes, blowing whistles and waving table tennis bats. Take the West Coast main line and Chris Green's attempt to talk the performance up. The West Coast performance of Virgin trains, freight trains, other passenger trains, and postal services all depends on signallers at Euston, Willesden Watford, Bletchley, Rugby and Nuneaton and so on down the Trent Valley to Crewe.

If those people had a clear instruction to regulate, based on speed and overall performance, without the penalty regime, the standard of service Chris Green and others require could well be achieved.

Peter Rayner

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

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