Railtrack has been ordered by the Health & Safety Executive to shape up or face enforcement notices after it discovered a dramatic 21 per cent jump in instances of cracked or broken rails.
As the HSE revealed a 15 per cent increase in significant rail accidents, rail cracks were described as one of the main causes. "Two trains derailed recently because of broken rails," an insider said. "They were freight trains but if they had been passenger trains the consequences would have been far more serious, potentially fatal."
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said he was concerned about broken rails and expected safety to be a top priority. "If Railtrack fail to actually observe those requirements then they'll meet the full wrath of government in those circumstances," he added. Between April 1998 and 1999, the number of broken rails rose from 801 to 973, the worst in Railtrack's five-year history and a 41 per cent increase since 1994.
"Inspectors have been looking at the state of track quality nationally and found that many sections of track do not comply with Railtrack standards. We continue to press for action to be taken to deal with this ... and will take enforcement action if necessary," Vic Coleman, the HSE's chief inspector of railways, said.
Railtrack must get a "better handle on the impact of fatigue" on its infrastructure, he said. Tracks which were once replaced after a set number of years were now dealt with when problems arose, whatever the age.
Railtrack blamed an increase in traffic for the poor situation. Spokesman Donal McCabe said the company recognised the problem and was committed to improvements.