Labour fears for privatised rail safety

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Labour called yesterday for urgent publication of an interim inquiry report into the Watford train crash, amid rising concern that privatising the railways may have reduced safety standards.

The crash, which occurred when a commuter train hit an empty stock train, killing one person and injuring 68 others, was the first one involving a passenger train since Railtrack was privatised earlier this year.

Although Labour is anxious not to pre-empt any investigation into the causes of the accident, it fears that the results of two inquiries launched yesterday may not be published until after the general election. This would let the Government off the hook, if underfunding and privatisation are found to be contributory factors.

As inquiries by the Health and Safety Executive's Railway Inspectorate and Railtrack were announced, Labour trans- port spokeswoman, Glenda Jackson, said: "Ministers must state clearly how and when the full facts of this incident are to be made public. Given the speculation concerning the possible contribution of privatisation ... it is unacceptable that we may have to wait for over a year before the truth emerges."

The HSE confirmed that the effects of privatisation would be part of their remit.

The Transport Secretary, Sir George Young, rejected suggestions that privatisation had impaired safety.

"There is no evidence that the privatisation process or the restructuring of the railways has in any way diminished their safety record," he said. "On the contrary, the evidence is that the safety record has actually improved."

A key issue highlighted by railways experts was the decision, by the Government, BR and then Railtrack, to shelve plans for an automatic train protection system (ATP) which stops the train if a driver goes through a red light.

Last month, the Commons Transport Select Committee described this decision, made before the end of two pilot schemes, as "deeply deplorable". Labour claims ATP's estimated pounds 1bn cost should be set against the more than pounds 2bn spent on rail privatisation.

There was also concern about the state of the West Coast line, on which the crash occurred, with one expert describing the line as "sadly neglected".

Yesterday, there was growing suspicion that the crash of the 17.04 Euston to Milton Keynes may have been caused by one driver going through a red light. Privately, Railtrack has reportedly been reassuring the City that initial indications point to "driver error".

The crucial final moments before the collision will have been recorded on the trains' "black boxes", which will give investigators details of the speeds, the drivers' actions, and data on signals and controls. First reports suggested that the empty train may have been travelling at up to 50 mph.

Worries over effect of sell-off

Is privatisation likely to have been a major factor behind the crash?

So far, figures suggest overall safety has not worsened under privatisation and may even have improved. Railtrack, which owns the track and stations, says fixed contracts with maintenance staff have helped put safety concerns on a more formal and thus better level.

Does that mean there are no safety concerns after privatisation?

Far from it: there is a growing anecdotal evidence that contractors doing vital track maintenance are sub-contracting to inexperienced or incompetent staff. The Health and Safety Executive severely criticised Railtrack this year for weaknesses in management and safety systems which could make future travel less safe. Railtrack's own recent figures show that while there were no major injuries last year, the number of small injuries rose by 13 per cent to 171. The company says a number of these were "drink- related", such as passengers falling off platforms.

How much is being invested by Railtrack?

It plans to invest pounds 1bn a year for 10 years, which it calls the biggest concentration of funds ever on infrastructure. However, railway unions and independent experts say Railtrack spends money half as efficiently as BR. In other words, pounds 1bn in Railtrack money would be pounds 500m in BR money. Wolfson College's railway expert, Bill Bradshaw, has described the West Coast track as "sadly neglected". Railtrack is spending "millions" on it but admits no more than on any other line. Discussions are still going on about raising new cash to upgrade it.

What are the most likely causes of the crash?

A mistake by a driver or a signalling error will be the main focal points of the inquiries. Drivers can sometimes be afflicted by "micro sleep", when through tiredness and repetition they can "miss" a red light. A signal error is more often as a result of human error than a fault in the signal system.

Would ATP have helped?

Automatic Train Protection is an expensive system which prevents trains going through red lights and overrides driver error. BR and now Railtrack have rejected it on grounds of cost - up to pounds 1bn. Sub-Channel rail travellers are protected by ATP on the French side but not when the enter Britain. Some independent experts say it is not cost-effective, at pounds 14m per life saved, and more lives would be saved by spending the cash on modern carriages.