Stephen Byers ignored the advice of senior railway inspectors so that he could present train safety figures in the best possible light come the next election, The Independent has discovered.
The Transport Secretary rejected a submission from experts at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to measure accidents per million train miles as a way of illustrating the safety of Britain's railways.
Instead, aware of the possibility of more crashes before the election, Mr Byers chose to use the number of serious incidents where signals are passed at danger (SPADs). This test is regarded by HSE rail inspectors as less meaningful.
Under work initiated before Mr Byers became Secretary of State for Transport last summer, the number of such SPADs will almost certainly come down, showing government policy in the best possible light, according to his critics.
It is far less likely that the total number of accidents will decline, because SPADs are only one minor cause of crashes. While trains passing red lights were to blame for the major accidents at Ladbroke Grove and Southall, SPADs have been the direct cause of only 2.7 per cent of collisions and derailments over the past 30 years. The crash at Hatfield was caused by a defective rail while the crash at Selby resulted from a car on the line.
Mr Byers has come under constant criticism for his stewardship of the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, especially for his reliance on "spin rather than substance''. However he has said that the success or failure of government transport policy would be judged at the next election on its record.
Two other measures have been chosen by Mr Byers for assessing rail performance have also come under attack. The proportion of new trains being introduced is bound to rise because of the number already on order. And the third statistic – punctuality and reliability – is also set to rise because the base-year figures were affected by disruption following the crash at Hatfield.
A spokesman at the HSE confirmed that the Department of Transport had sought the advice of rail inspectors. The ministry was told that it was difficult to find one "over-arching figure''.
While the Rail Inspectorate said that it was possible to use the number of serious SPADs, "incidents per million train miles'' was the "most comprehensive'' measure.
Anthony Smith, the national director of the Rail Passengers' Council, said: "The target chosen by Mr Byers was very selective.'' Trains passing red lights was only one element of the safety problem, he said. Trespass and vandalism and the number of people "slipping and tripping'' were other major causes. He said there were billions of pounds being spent on ensuring there would be a reduction in serious SPADs.
Don Foster, the transport spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said that "common sense'' dictated that the Secretary of State should accept the advice of experts in the field.
"This seems increasingly typical of the man; he just won't accept advice. Every part of the rail industry has to abide by the HSE. It seems Mr Byers has placed himself above that process,'' Mr Foster said.
Bob Crow, the newly elected general secretary of the RMT rail union, said that Mr Byers should have taken the advice of the HSE and not tried "to put the best possible spin'' on the situation. "There can be no room for spin-doctoring where people's lives are concerned,'' he said. He also pointed out that the train protection and warning system – the equipment being installed to reduce the number of serious SPADs – was not effective for trains travelling at more than 70mph, the most dangerous SPADs of all.
Mick Rix, leader of the train drivers union Aslef, also urged the Transport Secretary to take the advice of the HSE and abandon the exclusive use of SPAD statistics.
He pointed out that such figures would not include a number of incidents such as the crash at Hatfield 18 months ago, which had been caused by the "disastrous'' state of railway infrastructure.