Railtrack warned over safety

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

Railtrack was yesterday warned that severe weaknesses and poor management in its safety systems meant a greater risk of accidents, in a highly critical report by the Health and Safety Executive.

The HSE, which oversees safety on the railways, said that some of the weaknesses in Railtrack's systems "cause concern" and that in the future, they could make rail travel less safe than at present.

The report is the result of the most extensive inquiry ever carried out by the HSE into railway safety, involving 2,500 hours of work by inspectors, and after a series of leaks this summer into problems over Railtrack's relationship with its contractors.

While British Rail - from which Railtrack was split off in April 1994 - used to carry out most of its maintenance and repair work itself, Railtrack uses a contractor system and there is growing concern that this has proved less safe than the old integrated BR system.

The report comes at an embarrassing time for Railtrack as it is due to be privatised in May. Only last week, the HSE took the unprecedented step of ordering Railtrack to improve the condition of the track outside Euston station in London, after a derailment last December, highlighted a long- term problem over lack of maintenance on this section of track.

Yesterday, Vic Coleman, HSE's deputy chief inspecting officer for railways, who led the inquiry team, said: "We have found a management system which does have a number of weaknesses and we believe that those weaknesses need attending to."

The report cites a series of incidents in which management failures have led to safety defects. In one case, a signal was missing after work on the track and in another, work was undertaken outside an agreed protected site. More systematically, the report finds that while Railtrack is dependent on technical audits to monitor the performance of contractors, "we found little evidence of technical auditing taking place".

Mr Coleman conceded that Railtrack had made many improvements and he took comfort from the fact that the company was addressing many problems found in the report. Safety standards on the railways had not deteriorated since the creation of Railtrack, he added.

"Rail remains by far the safest mode of land transport and there is nothing in this report that undermines that view," he said. But he warned that Railtrack should respond "in great detail" to the report. "I don't want to see things slip any more."

Railtrack accepted the report's findings, saying: "[It} places an onus on us to make sure everyone works to our laid down safety procedures. This we will do."

Privatisation - A far from smooth journey

t September 1994: Commuter train derailed near Bickley, south-east London. Railtrack blamed the driver.

t September 1994: 18 passengers trapped when a two coach diesel Sprinter derailed in West Midlands.

t October 1994: Five killed in head-on collision near Cowden, Kent. Train driver went through red light.

t March 1995: Rail Regulator forced to backtrack on plans to cut number of stations offering through-ticketing.

t August 1995: A Railtrack safety managerwarned that another "Clapham disaster" was imminent.

t September 1995: Train crash at Walthamstow. Inquiry found staff had failed to ensure signals were working.

t December 1995: Train derailed at Primrose Hill, London. HSE ordered improvement of track outside Euston.