Cullen rail safety measures still not in place, admits Byers

Only eight recommendations from the inquiry into Paddington crash have been fully implemented
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Safety measures imposed to tighten controls on contractors since the Paddington rail crash have still not been implemented by Railtrack, Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary, admitted yesterday.

He told the House of Commons that changes had not been made some eight months after Lord Cullen's inquiry reported, and despite strong warnings from the Government. The Cullen inquiry recommended in September that the management of contractors working on tracks needed urgent overhaul.

The issue was also raised after the October 2000 accident at Hatfield, in which four people died when an express derailed on a cracked track.

In his wide-ranging report into the Paddington crash, in which 31 people died, Lord Cullen warned that there had to be an "immediate and sustained improvement" in the way Railtrack managed contractors. "There have been clear shortcomings in regard to their training, preparation, control and supervision which need to be put right," he said.

Lord Cullen recommended better selection processes for contractors, better checks on their work, a more active role to be taken by Railtrack in day-to-day management of their work, and ensuring that contractors' safety standards were the same as those of permanent rail employees.

But of the 74 recommendations included in the Cullen report, only eight of the 12 due to be phased in by March have been completed by Railtrack.

Mr Byers said yesterday that he had written to the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) to give it one month to report back on work on progress on contractor management. The Transport Secretary also underlined his message in an hour-long meeting with the HSC's chairman, Bill Callaghan, yesterday.

He spoke after the issue was raised by several Labour MPs, including Gwyneth Dunwoody, the chairwoman of the Transport Select Committee, and Dennis Skinner. Mrs Dunwoody said the contractor system needed to be looked at urgently by Railtrack, the Health and Safety Executive (which reports to the HSC) and the Railway Inspectorate.

She called for "clear accountability" and no delay in reports from accident inspectors. "There have been constant rumours not only of changes in the time taken to obtain classification but also qualifications in the employment of unskilled labour," she said.

Mr Byers acknowledged concerns about the use of contractors and subcontractors, and said he wanted a "speedy" implementation of Cullen's proposals even if they were not relevant to the latest crash.

He said: "There are genuine concerns that do exist that do need to be addressed, irrespective of the outcome of investigations into this particular derailment. This is a crucial area. Progress does have to made on the recommendations from the Cullen report. My concern is that not enough progress is being made."

He said the construction firm Jarvis, which holds the contracts for track renewal and maintenance on the east coast main line, had said inspections of the points at Potters Bar were conducted by "fully experienced and qualified" employees, and that no subcontractors were involved.

Theresa May, the shadow Transport Secretary, attacked Mr Byers for reportedly describing the accident as a "one-off, isolated incident.

"That implies there are no lessons to be learnt from this accident. Yet all of the reported possible causes of the loosening holding nuts on the points – vandalism, sabotage or poor maintenance – would suggest that there are lessons that should be learnt," she said.

Mr Byers said Ms May was misquoting him. "What I said very clearly ... is there is a difference between what might be a one-off incident and a generic problem with the network.

"The reason why railway travel is getting safer is because we do learn the lessons from incidents," he said.

Ms May also questioned whether there could be a second cause to the accident. "Is it true that the cause of the accident lay not just in an act of omission, in removing holding nuts from bolts, but also in an act of commission, in tightening one of the bars on the points, thus making an accident more likely?" she asked.

Mr Byers said he was not aware of such claims and said travelling by train was still one of the safest forms of transport.

As well as the HSE's interim report, due in the next few days, the chairman of the HSC will tomorrow recommend that it directs the HSE to conduct "an immediate formal investigation into the circumstances of the train derailment". The report and the scope of the inquiry would be made public as soon as possible.