Rail sell-off 'could increase accidents'

BRITAIN'S safety watchdog yesterday warned that unless there were tight controls, privatisation of British Rail could lead to a rise in the number of accidents and their severity.

Sir John Cullen, chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, told potential rail contractors that there were clear safety implications arising from the Government's proposals, which will allow outside franchisees to run trains and contractors increasingly to maintain track.

'It is possible that new companies with little or no previous experience of operating railways may enter the industry. They may have staff with limited experience of railway safety,' he told a seminar in London.

'If we fail to achieve adequate safety control systems, the result would be increased risk and the likelihood of an increase in the number of accidents and possibly also their severity.' He said regulatory and management structures should be robust enough to control risks and to secure the confidence of the industry and general public. 'Safety standards must be maintained,' he said.

The Department of Transport has accepted a HSC report on the potential hazards published earlier this year, but the commission is now consulting over draft detailed regulations.

It was necessary for any outside operator to show that it could identify risks, establish chains of responsibility, ensure that standards did not deteriorate and that there was compatibility and co-operation between companies. It was also vital to ensure that staff were competent and fit.

Another requirement was that for the first time there should be statutory controls on the carriage of dangerous goods by rail, including radioactive materials and explosives.

A Department of Transport spokeswoman said the Government had accepted all of the commission's recommendations so far. 'Ministers set great store by safety,' she said.

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