Safety work on BR carriages 'too expensive'

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

The recommendations of the inquiry into last year's Cowden train crash in which five people were killed look set to be ignored because they are too costly to implement.

The inquiry report, published in May, recommended that old Mk I rolling stock, whose poor crash resistance contributed to the scale of the disaster, should be replaced or refurbished to more modern standards.

However, a British Rail report leaked yesterday to the Labour Party suggests that safety modifications to the rolling stock would not be cost-effective.

Four options are considered for refurbishing the coaches, but even the cheapest of these would cost pounds 31.5m per life saved. The benchmark for such investment is pounds 1m to pounds 2m per life saved.

About 2,500 Mk I coaches are still in use, most in the South-east, and 1,400 will still be on the rails in 2000.

The leaked report, called Maintaining a Safe Passenger Railway Using Mark 1 Rolling Stock and written by Tony Roche, BR's central services group managing director, admits that the old rolling stock is less crashworthy than new carriages, which are better able to withstand the impact of an accident.

On providing new trains, it said: "Statistics show that the actual number of accidents occurring is small. This has been tolerable to customers and users of the railways so that the promise of better trains in the future has been an acceptable situation and there is not generally a demand for the immediate renewal of older vehicles simply because they are less crashworthy than new vehicles."

An order for new trains to replace several hundred of these old coaches was recently cancelled because the Government wanted it financed by the private sector and the train builders said the deal was unworkable.

Michael Meacher, Labour's transport spokesman, said delays in their replacement had recently led to the announced closure of the ABB (York) coachworks, with the loss of 750 jobs:

Mr Meacher said: "The scale of the privatisation fiasco is extraordinary.

"First the Government diverts hundreds of millions of pounds that could have been spent on modernisation of the railways into set-up costs for the sell-off.

"Then it tries to meet the bill by ending investment in new rolling stock, destroying Europe's most modern train manufacturer in the process.

"Then it asks for a report telling it that safety improvements are all very expensive and the best thing is to do nothing," he added.