Despite a spate of rail disasters in recent years the network is "over-cautious" about safety at the expense of performance, the Secretary of State for Transport said yesterday.
As Alistair Darling was talking at a rail conference in London, two rail companies were being fined £300,0000 for a "slapdash" approach to safety which led to a four-year-old boy being electrocuted on a line.
Maidstone Crown Court was told that Bobby Wood died after cycling through an open gate in a workyard and on to a live rail near his home in Strood, Kent. The infrastructure organisation Network Rail and the engineering company Balfour Beatty were fined for failing to prevent members of the public from gaining access to the line. Judge Patience said both companies were guilty of "an underlying slapdash and complacent attitude to the question of site security and therefore of safety". The court heard neither company had taken steps to lock a gate although it had been used by a fare dodger to leave the station a week earlier.
In London, Mr Darling was referring to allegedly unnecessary delays in commissioning new trains and track. He said that while safety was "paramount", the network had to have a "more sensible" approach. He said new stretches of line and new rolling stock were "taking longer than we would like" to win approval from rail inspectors in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and other agencies.
Mr Darling said he understood concerns in the wake of the Paddington, Hatfield and Potters Bar disasters, but added: "The only completely safe railways are where there are no trains running up and down the line.
"The HSE has told me that there's now a plethora of industry standards some of which are over-cautious or are being applied in an over-cautious way."
After the Paddington crash in which 31 people died, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, made it clear safety should take precedence over performance.
Mr Darling betrayed his frustration with the "fragmented" nature of the rail network. "It is sometimes difficult to nail down who is responsible, who is going to sort things out."
When there were delays in commissioning trains and track, the HSE would say it was the responsibility of those who set safety standards, but those who set the standards often said it was the responsibility of the HSE. "We need to cut through that," Mr Darling said.
His 200-strong audience of senior representatives of the rail industry voted by nine to one in favour of a proposition which said safety had gone "too far away" from common sense and cost-effectiveness.
Mr Darling made it clear that the present fundamental review of the industry would result in streamlining of safety responsibilities.
He appeared to support longer journey times to ensure that trains arrived at the scheduled time. "We're not talking about a blanket increase to every journey time," he said. "Each aspect needs to be carefully looked at and worked through so it works. We want a timetable passengers can rely on."
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