Train firms `put profits before safety'

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The Independent Online
Some private rail companies are failing to improve passenger safety because of the extra cost, according to a Health and Safety Executive report released yesterday. Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, reports on the potentially lethal practice of putting profits before safety.

Serious charges were levelled at the privatised rail network yesterday. Both Railtrack and the private train operators came under fire from safety inspectors.

Stan Robertson, the Chief Inspector of Railways, highlighted a number of instances where the HSE had to step in.

At a viaduct in Kent, Railtrack had refused to put up a fence to prevent people being showered by objects thrown from train windows. Railtrack appealed against HSE's intervention but had to back down.

A private train company wanted to use old slam door trains - criticised by the HSE - on InterCity trains which did not have central locking. The company said modifying the stock was not justified, now "fewer people were falling out of train doors". Unsurprisingly, the HSE did not accept this argument.

Some rail employers were even "misusing" the "risk assessment system" as a justification for reducing safety levels, the report added.

"The most common justification is that maintenance of the existing situation is too costly and thus is not reasonably practicable," said Mr Robertson. "It is a fact that managers now do not want to spend money where they feel they do not need to. I expect operators to go that extra step in the pursuit of safety rather than stop as soon as figures indicate that they appear to be justified in doing so."

The privatised railway network has seen an increasing number of managers who considered the present safety requirements as, according to one manager, "overly-stringent".

However, the HSE does not accept this. Mr Robertson said some railway managers thought they had nothing more to do once their safety plan - known as a safety case - had been approved.

In the foreword to the report, he went on: "Consequently, they take umbrage if a railway inspector asks for something to be modified to make it less dangerous. The reality is ... there will always be room for improvement."

Ministers responded to the report with harsh words. Gavin Strang, the transport minister, warned train operators not to put profits before safety. He said: "Profit must not be put before the wellbeing of staff and passengers, and operators should not take these broadly encouraging statistics as an excuse for complacency."

The statistics for the 12 months ending March 1997 revealed that arson was the cause of 64 per cent of passenger train fires; and there was a 53 per cent increase in trains running into obstructions deliberately placed on tracks. Fatalities, at 25, were the lowest ever, and only two people were killed after falling from carriages.