Rail safety shake-up 'puts lives at risk'

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The Independent Online

Deaths and injuries on the railways are likely to increase if the Government presses ahead with plans for a shake-up of the network, the chairman of the Health And Safety Commission has warned.

The Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, is expected to remove the rail inspectorate from the Health And Safety Executive - the operational arm of the commission - and switch it to the Office of the Rail Regulator, the network's economic watchdog.

Bill Callaghan said this could prejudice the protection of passengers and employees. He said ministers were bowing to pressure from the industry, which seemed to be seeking lower safety standards in an attempt to keep costs down.

"People would be horrified if they thought the industry was going to get its own way on safety," Mr Callaghan said.

"I'm sure inspectors would continue to do their excellent job, but they would be in a weaker position because the industry would be determining its own safety regulation."

Responding to accusations that the HSE was guilty of being overcautious and "gold-plating" safety procedures, Mr Callaghan said: "If the allegation is that safety standards are too high, then presumably they are looking for a lower standard of safety."

Rocketing costs on the railways were not the responsibility of the executive but were the result of "management balls-ups'' such as the project to modernise the west coast main line, he said. There was no conflict between high standards of safety and profitability.

Those who argued that the Civil Aviation Authority managed to police both costs and safety effectively, ignored the fact that the airline industry was more "compliant", he said.