Rail safety unit is set to be privatised

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The Independent Online
THE ORGANISATION which will advise the privatised railways on safety procedures is to be sold off itself this month, according to a leaked letter from British Rail. The news, which follows last week's leaking of a Railtrack report predicting "another Clapham disaster", provoked a political outcry yesterday, with Labour warning that there would be no one left to safeguard the public interest.

The letter says that the BR board has "entered into detailed discussions" over the sale of Quality and Safety Services, which is part of BR's existing safety structures. The letter, from William Tyler, personnel and communications director of BR's Vendor Unit, says a management buy-out team is expected to be "completing the sale in the next few weeks". It was sent on 3 August to interested parties, including Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, and Richard Rosser, general secretary of the Transport and Salaried Staffs Association.

Quality and Safety Services was formed in 1992 and is based in Derby, employing 80 people. It advises operators on safety standards and, according to the accounts, it sold pounds 4m of consultancy services in the year ending last March 1995, making pounds 400,000 profit.

Michael Meacher, shadow transport spokesman, said: "This damaging leak shows once again that rail safety is threatened by privatisation. Free- market Tory dogma has taken an integrated public service and split it in half. Part will go to a privately owned Railtrack, whose safety record is already highly suspect. The rest will become a private sector consultancy. The public interest cannot be protected in such a system. The sale must be stopped."

BR rejected the claims, arguing that QSS is involved in providing advice on the best safety practice for railway staff, rather than directly on the running of trains or signalling. A spokesman said: "The sale of QSS will not affect operations ... The public need have no concern about safety."

But critics argue that poor observance of safety procedures by staff can cause fatal accidents on the railways. Labour also claims the move is in breach of undertakings given by the Government in 1993 that key BR safety services would remain in the public domain for at least four years.

Henry McLeish, Labour's rail spokesman, said it is "patently absurd that BR should privatise its safety services in the light of recent damaging reports". This week the Opposition will widen its campaign on safety. Mr McLeish will point up 38 recommendations made by the Health and Safety Executive in 1993, and press for commitments to meet them if the system is privatised.

Concern about safety was heightened by the leak last week of a three- page Railtrack document in which the manager responsible for assessing safety, Jack Rose, noted two incidents this year. Maintenance workers were said to have "blindly followed" instructions in a way which could have brought about a repeat of the Clapham disaster in 1988.