Prescott gives rail firms yet another warning

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The Independent Online

Rail chiefs will be warned today at the safety summit called by John Prescott that their contracts could be at risk if they fail to fulfil their legal obligations on safety after this month's Paddington disaster in which at least 30 people died and 245 were injured.

Rail chiefs will be warned today at the safety summit called by John Prescott that their contracts could be at risk if they fail to fulfil their legal obligations on safety after this month's Paddington disaster in which at least 30 people died and 245 were injured.

The Deputy Prime Minister will tell the rail company leaders that the increasing numbers of drivers passing through red lights - in spite of warnings in the cab - is prima-facie evidence that their contractual obligations on safety are not being met.

He has told officials that licences were issued on the understanding that train-operating companies would provide safe services. Safety failures could open the companies to a review of the terms of their contracts.

As a first step, train operators will be told to retrain drivers who pass red lights, and to ensure equality of training across the country. Mr Prescott has dismissed suggestions from Railtrack that the Government should buy a 15 per cent stake in the company to help it to pay for the introduction of fail-safe braking devices on trains that pass red lights.

The rail companies will be left in no doubt today that they will have to find the money to fund the improved safety through automatic train protection (ATP) in the wake of the Paddington crash by reducing their profit margins if necessary, not by passing the cost to rail passengers.

Victims of the Southall rail crash two years ago have asked for an urgent meeting with Mr Prescott, to express concern about the "downgrading" of the public inquiry into the accident.

Survivors and bereaved families say the investigation into the causes of the earlier accident in west London in which seven people died and 150 were injured is being neglected following the launch of the separate Paddington inquiry under Lord Cullen. Lawyers acting for the victims will raise the matter with Professor John Uff QC, who is leading the Southall inquiry, when the hearing resumes today.

Louise Christian, one of the legal team, said that the bereaved families were furious that Professor Uff had decided to restrict the scope of the inquiry, and not deal with the question of which train-protection system should be installed across the rail system.

They say that the move breaks the pledge made to them by Mr Prescott that there would be a full public inquiry into the causes of the incident. "We want to ensure that a second public inquiry does not delay the important issues which need to be looked at urgently," Ms Christian said. "At present my clients feel that their concerns are being shoved to one side and that their inquiry is being downgraded. We appeal to those in authority not to let that happen."

However, Mr Prescott last night privately rejected claims that the inquiry was being downgraded. He told friends: "I made it clear the Southhall inquiry will continue and will report as soon as possible. I get upset when lawyers make complaints when it is lawyers often who have delayed inquiries."

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