Longer engineering contracts key to better safety, says Railtrack chief

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The Potters Bar crash comes as Railtrack has abandoned plans to take direct control of maintaining the network.

John Armitt, Railtrack's new chief executive, believes that the solution to safety problems lies in longer contracts and greater financial security for engineering groups.

Mr Armitt wants to ensure that companies such as Balfour Beatty and Jarvis will be awarded contracts lasting up to six years instead of the present four. Balfour was partly blamed for the broken rail which caused the Hatfield tragedy on the East Coast Main Line 19 months ago. That crash provoked the network's worst peacetime disruption as engineers inspected the rest of the system for similar problems.

Balfour was subsequently relieved of the East Coast contract, which included the stretch of track at Potters Bar, and Jarvis took over.

In his report into rail safety last September, Lord Cullen called for the introduction of tighter supervision of contractors within six months. Last month the Health and Safety Commission said the deadline had not been met.

After privatisation, the network was carved up geographically and the private-sector companies were made responsible for maintenance in their own area. However, in many cases the larger groups have sub-contracted out key responsibilities, which has led to the employment of casual labour and a perceived reduction in safety levels.

Jarvis Rail itself came under fire in a case at Liverpool Crown Court in 2000 when two workers were acquitted of manslaughter after the death of a colleague. The judge referred to the "apparent slackness" of the company for allowing unqualified staff to supervise engineering work.

Last week an inquest opened into the death of Michael Mungovan, a student and an all-Ireland high-jump champion, who worked for Balfour Beatty in south London. Mr Mungovan was killed in October 2000 when he stepped in front of a train days after being hired by a recruitment agency to work for Balfour Beatty.

Mr Mungovan's friends say he had received only nine hours' training, although Balfour claimed the training had lasted at least 22 hours.

Under the rail industry's rule book, every track worker must attend a two-day course to obtain a safety certificate. But skilled workers are supposed to undergo more sophisticated training to obtain competency certificates. However, checks are thought to be inadequate and staff are sometimes allowed on to the track without relevant expertise.

Deep concerns about the situation have been raised by "whistleblowers" via the network's Confidential Incident Reporting and Analysis System. A CIRAS report last June said: "The main concern is that agency staff frequently turn up for work with no prior training or experience ... this is affecting safety and may result in an accident." The report said unqualified staff had been used to patrol tracks and look for defects and inexperienced workers were expected to use flags to signal to trains when work was being done.

Both Railtrack's chief executive and Network Rail, the not-for-profit company bidding to take over from Railtrack, believe that longer contracts would help companies to invest in equipment and people, and reduce the need for casual labour. That would improve safety standards, they believe.

Network Rail wants to introduce a system whereby employees are eligible for a bonus linked to train punctuality and the company's success in keeping the lines open. The organisation criticised Railtrack's bonus system, which was linked to the value generated for shareholders.

However, the CIRAS report could also be taken as a criticism of the payment mechanism envisaged by Network Rail. The document said that despite the Hatfield tragedy, defective rails were still being ignored. "Some people are said to be reluctant to report faults as this may result in a speed restriction being imposed, thus delaying the service." Late trains would mean less pay.