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Railwatch 086 - November 2000

Rayner's Review

Safety - the essential investment

I suppose, like the industry I served for much of my life, I am in a state of shock. In this article, I had hoped to weigh in the balance my thoughts on the Train Protection and Warning System versus Automatic Train Protection following a number of informed responses to Railwatch on the subject.

I was going to draw these differing views together in the light of evidence given to Lord Cullen's and Professor Uff's Joint Inquiry held in September and October.

All that is now on the back burner, important though it is. The hysteria about rail condition problems, the sudden "born again" safety attitudes, the reported remark of the Prime Minster talking about "balancing safety" (balance against what, pray?), Sir Alastair Morton saying that some of the problems go back to BR and are not to do with privatisation, need challenging.

Does Sir Alastair really think that BR was not directly being controlled by the Government? Yes of course BR decisions paved the way for the incompetence that now stands revealed. BR split itself internally to make privatisation easier and in doing so made safety more difficult to manage. The then-government refused to listen to the critics of this methodology and set in train a flawed method of privatisation.

It is highly significant, is it not, that no other country has structured its railways, with infrastructure and operations totally separated, in the way we have done it in Britain. The Tories tried to use European Union rules - on separating the accounts of railway infrastructure and operations - to justify the structure they adopted. But in other countries infrastructure authorities have been set up as part of the national railway administrations.

Worse still, when their Bill was going through Parliament the Tories clearly indicated that the infrastructure would stay in public ownership. But after Railtrack (never referred to anywhere in the 1993 Act) took responsibility for the infrastructure, the Government disclosed plans to sell what had been set up as a division of British Rail on the Stock Exchange.

This policy virtually guaranteed profits would be put ahead of safety and lead to the present furore. The flotation also made the whole complex structure much more difficult for politicians to control, and managers to manage - especially safety managers.

Last year Prime Minister Tony Blair described rail privatisation as the biggest political scandal of the 1990s - but he and his Government have taken no serious measures to overcome the weaknesses of the present structure. Even the Strategic Rail Authority is still a shadow - and the Transport Bill that will finally give it some powers is bogged down in Parliament because the Lords have rejected the Bill's clauses on partial privatisation of air traffic control.

Isn't it ironic that the legislation seeking to get at least some firmer control on the shambles of the privatised rail industry is being put at risk by plans to part-privatise the air traffic control infrastructure?

After the rail system was handed over to Railtrack in April 1994, there followed six years of non-effective maintenance, which left us with a railway that did not know the state of its infrastructure's condition.

This is the network which is now carrying as many passenger miles as the Big Four railways were handling in 1946 . . . on a route network at least 50 per cent greater than it is today. The infrastructure in many cases is now overloaded and needs even greater attention.

Of course the system is in need of investment, and has been for the past 15 years. Under BR, it was a well-maintained infrastructure in need of investment. There was not a single speed restriction at all on the West Coast Main Line when it was handed over to Railtrack in 1994.

The Prime Minster and his deputy appear to have swallowed the propaganda of the civil servants - the same civil servants who advised the previous Government. Yes, Railtrack has spent lots of money, but not on maintenance, only on grand refurbished stations and lots of retail outlets.

So little has been spent on engineering that now Romanian engineers are coming in to do some of the work. Good luck to them but remember the shortage of skilled engineers here is directly as a result of Railtrack's non-investment in signalling and track infrastructure which has led to the supply companies laying off hundreds of experienced and skilled people in recent years.

Many of the major re-signalling schemes, identified by BR after the Clapham disaster in 1987, have still not been planned, let alone started!

These are all serious issues which relate to the safe integrity - now and in the future - of our rail network, and they should be considered in the second part of Lord Cullen's inquiry, which started on 30 October.

Returning finally to the TPWS versus ATP arguments, we all know which is best and in the next Railwatch I will list all the pros and cons. One thing we need to remember, though, is that ATP is a doctor who observes the patient and only operates when something goes wrong. TPWS requires surgery on the signalling when being installed. Are all the signals upon which this surgery is to take place in a fit condition to undergo the operation?

Clapham was a wiring error. And now? New engineers, shortage of skills, maybe even language difficulties now. There clearly remains much cause for concern.

Peter Rayner is a former BR operations and safety officer and is RDS safety adviser.

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