Safety fear for rail workers

CONTRACTORS on the nation's rail network are failing to follow stringent safety rules - which could lead to a "potentially catastrophic accident", according to an industry safety review.

The study conducted by rail companies such as Eurostar, Virgin Trains and Railtrack, the owner of the nation's track, stations and signalling, highlighted a number of concerns.

According to the report - published last month, but unreported at the time - there has been "a worrying trend in the number of incidents which could have led to serious accidents".

Most serious has been that when track maintenance machines enter work sites where, according to a Railtrack spokesman, workers "were not adequately warned".

Another problem is that protection systems have been installed at the wrong locations. The report, entitled "The Railway Group Safety Review" is compiled by 52 partners, says: "Many of the accidents can clearly be put down to a lack of competence or site knowledge by individuals, and the infrastructure contractors must take the lead in addressing these issues."

The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union - which has raised a number of safety concerns about the privatised railway industry, also highlighted a recent case were two track workers were drug-tested and found to have traces of heroin. Both were sacked - but turned up working for another contractor a few weeks later.

However, Railtrack said that the company "continued to drive continuous improvements in all aspects of safety". A spokesman added: "We had zero levels of deaths for workers on the railway last year - the first time for 150 years."

News of the report comes as rail chiefs investigate how two rush-hour commuter trains almost collided. The near miss happened on Thursday during a morning rush hour just outside Cannon Street station in London - scene of a fatal accident in 1991.

In other recent safety incidents, railway track workers reported a contractor forgetting to put up a 20mph speed restriction on a 70 mph route when work was being carried out and concrete sleepers wearing the track away.

The latest report, which is signed, among others, by London Transport, Heathrow Express and Balfour Beatty, says problems can occur when contractors take control of track at short notice, leading to "confusion and misunderstanding". It calls for assurances that "all work on the railway is properly planned in advance".