Rail safety fears trigger huge rise in inspectors

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The Independent Online
The number of safety inspectors on the railways has increased dramatically as a result of the complexities of rail privatisation, fuelling fears that breaking up the network has led to an increase in risks.

According to the annual report of the Railways Inspectorate, due to be published early next month, there are 48 inspectors now, compared to 36 two years ago, because of the workload caused by separating British Rail into 25 train- operating companies, Railtrack and other companies.

The rise in inspectors backs up arguments put forward by senior sources within the industry who say the new safety regime drawn up as a result of the privatisation programme is inherently flawed. In particular, the responsibility given to Railtrack to investigate incidents on the railways causes concern on account of the organisation's imminent privatisation.

Under the new system, when an incident with safety implications occurs, Railtrack takes responsibility for the inquiry. As the resources of the Railways Inspectorate are limited, it only becomes involved in serious cases. Investigations of minor incidents, of which there are hundreds each year, are carried out by Railtrack.

Senior sources in BR say once Railtrack is privatised, it will be hard for it to remain impartial, as many findings may have severe financial implications. One source said: "What happens if Railtrack finds it needs to spend pounds 10m on a particular safety device? Its directors may be tempted to avoid committing themselves to the expenditure because of the potential damaging effect on the company's share price."

Under the old system, British Rail passed on such problems to the Government, which was responsible for important investment decisions.

Senior industry figures also fear a privatised Railtrack will be tempted to blame other parts of the industry for incidents: "If a driver supposedly went through a red light, but he denies it and says that the signalling is faulty, there may be a temptation to dismiss his arguments too easily. A privatised organisation should not have the responsibility of carrying out investigations involving other bodies in the industry."

BR sources cite the air industry, which is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, and where accident investigations are always carried out by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the Department of Transport.

Next week, the inquiry report into September's fire on an InterCity High Speed Train at Maidenhead, which resulted in the death of a passenger, is likely to place part of the blame for the incident on the hasty break- up of the railways in preparation for privatisation.

The fire was caused by faulty maintenance, which allowed a diesel tank to fall off after its retaining bolts sheered. The maintenance is the responsibility of a soon-to-be privatised specialist company which was formerly part of BR. The report is likely to criticise the new devolved structure between the components of what used to be a unified BR.