Safety report slams Railtrack

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The Independent Online

Railtrack has shown "basic failures" in maintaining railway lines to a safe standard, a damning report by the Health and Safety Executive concluded today.

Railtrack has shown "basic failures" in maintaining railway lines to a safe standard, a damning report by the Health and Safety Executive concluded today.

The HSE's chief railway inspector also said he also had "very serious concerns" over the privatised rail firms' record on trains running through red signals.

The annual Railway Safety Report does not cover the recent Paddington rail disaster, which saw 31 people killed when a train apparently did just that.

But the findings, which echo criticisms voiced by rail regulator Tom Winsor in his report last week, brought fresh condemnation from rail safety experts and pressure groups.

And the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee called on Railtrack to draw up a "very serious plan" to address the concerns.

Railtrack insisted improvements had been made in the past eight months not covered by the report and said more was being done to improve tracks across the country.

Speaking at the report's publication, chief railway inspector Vic Coleman threatened legal action if Railtrack did not respond to the HSE's concerns.

"Looking back over recent years I have to conclude that the railway industry has not been self-challenging enough - especially when faced with hard decisions where safety and service levels are at stake," he said.

The HSE ordered Railtrack to take signal 109, blamed for the Paddington crash, out of service following October's accident, a decision the firm is appeal against.

Mr Coleman said today: "Our report shows that the HSE has very serious concerns about the way rail industry manages signals passed at danger (SPADs) and about the state of the tracks on the national rail network.

"We have already issued a critical report into SPADs and have been following this up vigorously."

The rail regulator has already unveiled plans to reform Railtrack's operating licence over fears it was neglecting safety issues.

And today Mr Coleman said inspectors were "worried" by a snapshot survey of the track network that showed a third of track was declining in June 1988 compared with just 22% that had improved.

"HSE is already seeking assurances that action will be taken and will also support any action that ORR may take to help improve the state of the tracks," he said.

Broken rails had increased by almost 17% in the year surveyed, with a "worrying" 100% rise in the heavily used Midlands section of track, south of Rugby, he added.

"This substantial increase is very disturbing, especially as Railtrack had predicted that the number of broken rails would fall in the year," he said.

Mr Coleman said the reason for the increase in rail breakages was not fully understood, but appeared to be a combination of ageing rails, more train traffic and - most importantly - reduced track quality.

Peter Rayner, who quit his post as BR's chief operating manager in the busy Midlands region in protest at the way privatisation was being handled, had no such doubts.

Mr Rayner, who still works as a safety experts in the industry, said: "There is no doubt Railtrack have boasted about spending money on railways but they are essentially spending it on the wrong things.

"It is going on doing up stations and selling more pizzas - developing more franchises - there is much less spent on track maintenance."

Campaign group Save Our Railways called the findings a "damning indictment yet" of the privatised company and called for Government representatives to be appointed to the board to oversee change.

"Railtrack's job is to keep the tracks in good condition - that is why it is called Railtrack," campaign director Jonathan Bray said.

"For Railtrack to be making £1.2 million profits a day whilst the track deteriorates is the most damning indictment yet of the company's priorities and leadership."

Jon Carter, deputy director of the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee, warned he and colleagues would be "closely watching" Railtrack's response to the report.

"There must be a cause for some concern if the findings of the report are accurate," he said.

"There must be a very serious plan to address these concerns."

The HSE report also noted that vandalism was a continued problem for the rail network, with 56% of all rail accidents caused by "malicious action", and pledged to continue public education programmes to reduce it.