Huge inquiry to assess safety of Railtrack

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The Independent Online
The Railways Inspectorate has launched its biggest investigation, involving all its 25 field rail inspectors, to assess the safety of the new structure of the railway following the creation of Railtrack.

The inspectorate took this unprecedented action after a series of leaked documents this summer relating to the relationship between Railtrack and its contractors raised fears that safety was being compromised.

Alan Cooksey, Deputy Chief Inspector of the Railways, said that the report being prepared would be published in January and added that the inspectorate had admonished Railtrack for failing to supply all documents relating to these incidents.

If the report even hints that safety concerns have not been properly addressed, the privatisation of Railtrack, scheduled for next spring, could be delayed. One of the leaks quoted a Railtrack safety official, Jack Rose, saying that Railtrack needed "18 months" before its safety systems were ready for privatisation.

Concern about the safety implications of privatisation was also highlighted in the annual report of the Railways Inspectorate for the year up to 1 April 1995, published yesterday, which warned of "uncertainties and risks if [privatisation] is not managed properly".

While there is no evidence from the statistics in the report that the break-up of the railways in April 1994, with British Rail being split into more than 100 units, has led to a reduction in safety standards, Stan Robertson, Chief Inspector of the Railways warns that there was "no reason for being complacent". He warned that within the restructured railway "many more companies will be pressing their own interests" and therefore "the industry will have to take steps to ensure that the safety management system is complete, cohesive and totally effective."

The inspectorate is also to assess whether Railtrack is justified in reducing the number of emergency-response trains from 13 to 5. According to Railtrack, these trains, used to recover derailed rolling stock, are now required less often as there are fewer derailments. However, the annual report says that "significant" derailments increased from 87 to 107.

Evidence from the first year of operation after the creation of Railtrack shows that the safety record was about the same as the previous year, the best on record. The number of train accidents fell from 977 in 1993/94 to 907 in 1994/95, with significant accidents - those potentially the most dangerous to passengers - falling by eight to 110.

The total number of people killed on the railways, excluding trespassers and suicides, rose by two to 42 and fatal accidents to passengers increased from 16 to 17. Staff killed on all railways increased from eight to nine, and 13 level-crossing users were killed, one fewer than in the previous year.

A total of 254 trespassers were killed, including 120 suicides and six children under 16 compared with corresponding figures the previous year respectively of 262, 141 and eight. Mr Robertson said that none of these changes represented "statistically significant fluctuations".