Safety regime stuck in steam age, says rail chief

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The Independent Online

The rail network's most powerful regulator declared that the system's safety regime was stuck in the "steam age" as ministers came under intense pressure to strip the Health and Safety Executive of responsibility for the railways yesterday.

The rail network's most powerful regulator declared that the system's safety regime was stuck in the "steam age" as ministers came under intense pressure to strip the Health and Safety Executive of responsibility for the railways yesterday.

Sir Alastair Morton, chairman of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority (SSRA), called for the creation of a specialised safety organisation for the railways that would match the technical excellence available to the aviation industry.

Meanwhile, long-suffering passengers hit by delays due to floods and an unprecedented level of maintenance work in the wake of the Hatfield train disaster, were promised a workable timetable by next week.

At a meeting in Downing Street involving the Prime Minister and rail chiefs, it was agreed that a compensation package for passengers would be arranged soon - possibly next week. But it was also confirmed that delays were likely to continue until early in the new year.

Stewart Francis, chairman of the Rail Passengers Council, said the rail industry had to work hard to restore passenger confidence, "shaken" since the Hatfield derailment that claimed four lives last month.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, a transport minister, said services run by nine of the passenger train companies were almost back to normal and that timetables for the remaining 16 should be available by next week.

He refuted suggestions that there had been a row over compensation or new timetables. "There is not a row. We have had a very constructive discussion," he said.

Giving evidence to a public inquiry into rail safety earlier yesterday, Sir Alastair attacked the present system, which he said was dominated by "sour and defensive" relationships, including that between the safety executive and Railtrack, the infrastructure company.

Sir Alastair also said the "blame culture" in the industry had infected the response to a series of recent disasters, and agreed there was a tension between the drive for safety and performance. He added that the industry's leading organisations were "stumbling to keep up with current events" in the wake of the Hatfield crash and the Paddington and Southall tragedies.

Modern high-speed trains such as France's TGV reached speeds of 180mph, he said, and the railways should therefore have regulatory institutions to match the aviation industry, the inquiry heard.

Sir Alastair continued: "We need to get away from rail steam heritage. The railways have moved in the direction of increasing speed and complexity. Why should aviation have a much more intellectual approach to safety management than the railways?"

Sir Alastair's call for a new institution for rail safety inspection comes after similar calls from the Assocation of Train Operating Companies and representatives of the bereaved and injured at the Paddingon and Southall crashes. But the intervention of the SSRA chairman puts far more pressure on Lord Cullen, chairman of the inquiry, to recommend such a move to ministers.

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