Ministers reject public inquiry into rail disaster

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The Independent Online

The Government rejected calls for a full public inquiry into the Potters Bar rail disaster yesterday as a union said that management was warned about problems at the site three weeks before the crash.

Despite pressure from Tory leaders, the RMT union and representatives of those bereaved in other rail disasters, the Transport minister John Spellar said an extensive hearing into the tragedy was not necessary.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, urged the Government, and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to undertake the kind of comprehensive public investigations conducted into the Southall and Paddington rail crashes. Mr Crow revealed that one of his members – a "highly experienced rail worker" – had alerted managers to problems near the points at Potters Bar three weeks before last Friday's crash, which claimed seven lives.

Mr Crow denounced the "shambolic" way maintenance was organised and argued that the industry's safety culture had been "fatally undermined" by fragmentation. He said: "We have contractors who use sub-contractors, sub-contractors who use agency staff, agencies who use casual labour and they are all in it for profits, not safety. Maintenance needs to be brought back in-house now."

The rail worker said yesterday he had written down his concerns in a book. The man, who did not wish to be named for breaching the industry's "gagging" regulations, said: "There is water retention under the track that has not been fixed for two to three years. The ballast is sucked up like a pump and this has made the track very unstable, causing the train to lurch from side to side."

In a statement to the House of Commons, the Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, said it was "premature" to consider a public inquiry until initial investigations by the HSE were completed. He stressed that checks on 800 points across the country had found no defects similar to those at Potters Bar.

The Shadow Transport Secretary, Theresa May, said a full public inquiry should be launched if it was revealed the crash was anything other than a freak accident.