Paddington rail disaster: Blair orders Railtrack safety inquiry

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The Independent Online

JOHN PRESCOTT received the damning safety report, which yesterday led to the appointment of a hit squad to investigate Railtrack's safety record, on the same day as the crash.

JOHN PRESCOTT received the damning safety report, which yesterday led to the appointment of a hit squad to investigate Railtrack's safety record, on the same day as the crash.

The Deputy Prime Minister was told on Tuesday there were a number of concerns about the way Railtrack regulated safety on the network.

Yesterday, after a top-level meeting, the Government ordered the independent team from the Health and Safety Commission to look into concerns about Railtrack and how the company dealt with safety.

The safety report, commissioned a year ago when safety fears were raised in the Commons Transport Select Committee, had arrived too late to see any measures implemented. It urged the Government to consider whether Railtrack should remain responsible for:

Approving train and station operators' safety rules and procedures;

Railways' standards development;

Safety auditing;

Strategic research for rail incidents;

Accident investigation.

Only now will experts investigate the concerns after a two-hour briefing at Downing Street yesterday attended by Mr Prescott, the Prime Minister, Lord Macdonald, the Transport Minister, Tom Windsor, the rail regulator, Bill Callaghan, Health and Safety Commission chairman, Vic Coleman, the chief railway inspector, and the head of the Strategic Rail Authority, Alastair Morton. The meeting covered network safety measures, Lord Cullen's inquiry into the disaster and a separate inquiry into the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system.

Lord Macdonald is to make a statement to the House of Lords tomorrow. His address, as Parliament resumes after the summer break, will be the first of many statements on last week's disaster. Its political implications could be huge.

Labour backbenchers had started to call for more regulation, even re- nationalisation, of the rail network as the initial news of the crash emerged. On Wednesday, Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading, and George Stevenson, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent and a member of the Transport Select Committee, each expressed concerns about rail ownership.

Further pressure is likely to come from the trade unions. Mike Rix, leader of the drivers' union Aslef, said his members would be balloted over strike action if the rail firms did not quickly commit themselves to a package of safety measures.

Questions will also be asked about the value of installing the ATP system and, if it were the right choice, why it was not installed when recommended after the Clapham disaster of 1988 which claimed 35 lives.

The Government is certain to come under pressure from its own backbenches to invest in the rail system. This, combined with public demands for action, will mean ministers are compelled to act quickly.

The Conservatives, too, must tread with caution. Early remarks about the crash by John Redwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, who was quick to criticise the Government, were played down by party chairman Michael Ancram. The Tories have the hard task of holding the Government to account without seeming to make political capital out of a human tragedy.

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