Train firms want Railtrack stripped of its safety role

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The Independent Online

A fundamental split over who should be in control of rail safety emerged yesterday among the most powerful organisations in the industry.

A fundamental split over who should be in control of rail safety emerged yesterday among the most powerful organisations in the industry.

In the wake of the Hatfield disaster, train operators demanded for the first time that responsibility for safety should be stripped from Railtrack.

The infrastructure company, however, insisted that it should remain in day-to-day charge, and argued that there had been no evidence to support claims that there had been a conflict between safety and the drive for profit.

Presenting its opening submission yesterday to the Cullen inquiry into rail safety, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) called for the creation of an independent National Rail Safety Authority and a separate Rail Accident Investigation Board.

The new safety authority, it was argued, would remove conflicts of interest at Railtrack, which was both "operator and regulator", and the Health and Safety Executive's rail inspectorate, which was both "regulator and investigator". The association won the backing of those who were bereaved in the Southall and Paddington rail crashes, but the Health and Safety Executive privately expressed its opposition.

The proposed new safety organisation would be modelled on the Civil Aviation Authority and take over the responsibilities of rail inspectors and of Railtrack's Safety and Standards Directorate.

George Muir, director-general of ATOC, said that as a matter of principle, accident investigation should be separate from regulation and from other industry bodies, and safety regulation should be separate from operational responsibilities.

Mr Muir said that the creation at the end of the year of Rail Safety Limited, a Railtrack subsidiary designed to be independent from the company's board, was a "stop-gap" and did not resolve the problems of conflicts of interest.

Rod Muttrum, Railtrack's safety director, said he supported the creation of an accident investigation organisation, but accusations of conflict of interest made against his company had not been substantiated. He said the conclusions of the Cullen inquiry into safety which began yesterday should be given "reasoned consideration" before any new bodies were created.

Robert Owen, counsel to the inquiry, said it would be a mistake to refuse to contemplate changes to the safety system solely because change was inherently risky. "It is simply unacceptable that the public and rail employees should be exposed to unnecessary risk while the industry sorts itself out," he said.

* The shadow Strategic Rail Authority said almost every train operator will be held to limiting fare rises by 1 per cent below the rate of inflation for the third year running.