Rail insiders have criticised Britain's rail safety chiefs for attempting to guarantee themselves immunity from legal action for any errors they might make leading to serious accidents.
The Rail Regulator Chris Bolt and his board are believed to have wanted to keep their request for personal immunity confidential, although minutes of a key meeting were published by mistake, but this has been denied.
The information, disclosed on the website of the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), revealed that Mr Bolt's request to the Secretary of State for Transport was rejected. If the immunity had been granted, the victims of rail accidents and the bereaved would have been prevented from suing Mr Bolt and his board for compensation even if they could demonstrate personal negligence.
Paragraph seven of the minutes of a meeting of the board in April began: "The Secretary of State had considered and declined the board's request for statutory immunity, though he was aware that this was likely to make the Board more risk adverse [sic]." The last sentence of the paragraph read: "This minute will be redacted [from] the published version."
Following a call to the ORR by The Independent, the final sentence was removed from the minute and an ORR press officer claimed that the information was always meant to be in the public domain.
The decision by the Secretary of State means that Mr Bolt and his colleagues can be sued for any perceived negligence. However, ministers have indemnified the ORR board so that any successful litigation for compensation arising out of an accident would be met by the Department for Transport (DfT).
It is thought that the Rail Regulator sought exemption from litigation because of the legal proceedings over the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) failings in the Paddington disaster in October 1999. The ORR has taken over responsibility for safety from the HSE. It is understood that Mr Bolt and his colleagues were so concerned about having personal liability for safety lapses that they lobbied the then Secretary for State Alistair Darling to have the immunity included in the Railways Act 2005.
The minute, dated April 2006, shows that they had not been told in detail why the request had been denied and that they were not prepared to let the matter drop.
A spokesman for the ORR said it was never the intention to keep the request for immunity confidential. He pointed out that two other regulators had been granted such status. They are the Financial Services Authority and the arbiter of the public-private partnership on the Tube.
The spokesman pointed out that Mr Bolt and the directors had been appointed to the ORR before it assumed responsibility for safety. Previously the board had only covered economic regulation. The spokesman said: "There is a higher risk of litigation claims arising from injuries sustained in accidents on a transport system than in other areas of regulation. The question of claims is more to the fore than in other areas of regulation."
A spokeswoman for the DfT said: "Giving the Rail Regulator immunity would have run counter to most other regulatory practice which applies to organisations with an economic and safety remit."