Rail inspectors say lives not at risk in strikes

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Allegations that managers who are operating signal boxes during the rail dispute have been putting lives at risk have proved unfounded, the Railway Inspectorate, the industry's official safety body, said yesterday.

The inspectorate said that it had investigated about 100 claims of unsafe working practices during the signal workers' strikes. Inspections had 'not shown that the safety of the public or railway staff is being compromised'.

Safety has become a key issue in the propaganda war between Railtrack and the RMT as the signal workers' dispute drags on. The next strike will take place for 48 hours from midnight to midnight next Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Thursday, one train was derailed near Bromley, Kent, and another went over a level crossing in Derbyshire while the barriers were up. Yesterday, a newspaper reported that another busy signal box was run by a manager after two hours of training.

About 150 such incidents have been reported to the inspectorate by the RMT and Aslef, the train drivers' union, since strikes began.

Rail accidents are very rarely caused by signal workers' mistakes. Far more result from errors by other staff, technical defects, animals on the track and irresponsibility by the public. Figures collated by the Inspectorate for 1992-93 show that, out of 1,152 accidents, staff error caused 218. Of these only 19 involved signal workers, of which they were solely responsible for five. One train driver was killed in one incident.

The unions believe that this good safety record results from thorough training of signal workers. After a two-week induction course, which all railway employees attend, they spend seven weeks at a training centre in Crewe and a month under supervision at the box they are assigned to.

Railtrack said yesterday that the managers manning signal boxes are all from the operational sections.