A tacit admission that our rail system is not as safe as it should be

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No one yet knows precisely what went wrong with Tuesday's 12.10 GNER service from London's King's Cross to Leeds. It will be some time before we do. Given that inquiries into last year's Paddington disaster and the 1997 Southall crash are not complete, it may be a long time until we discover the whole truth about the Hatfield accident and can begin to learn detailed lessons from this latest railway tragedy.

No one yet knows precisely what went wrong with Tuesday's 12.10 GNER service from London's King's Cross to Leeds. It will be some time before we do. Given that inquiries into last year's Paddington disaster and the 1997 Southall crash are not complete, it may be a long time until we discover the whole truth about the Hatfield accident and can begin to learn detailed lessons from this latest railway tragedy.

However, even at this early stage, some things are becoming clear. We know now, for example, that sabotage, either though terrorism or vandalism, can be ruled out. We must be also relieved that it is not another instance of a train passing a signal at danger. Railtrack officials have come extremely close to conceding that the problem lay on the permanent way itself rather than the rolling stock: "We have cause to believe that a broken rail may have been part of the accident."

It is in that context that we must judge also the speedy offer of resignation by Railtrack's chief executive, Gerald Corbett. It is as close a recognition of corporate failure, even culpability, as it is possible to envisage before the conclusions of the official inquiry are eventually published.

Mr Corbett's offer to resign, telling as it may be, does not, of course, represent the end of the matter so far as Railtrack and the rail operators are concerned. "Never again" has become almost a mantra after each in the recent series of major rail crashes; understandably, it was repeated again in reaction to the Hatfield crash. But while attention, naturally, focuses on the immediate causes of this incident, there are still more fundamental issues that these accidents raise.

One key factor that needs to be examined once again is lack of investment in the railway's infrastructure. This has been neglected since the days of British Rail (and indeed, even before nationalisation in 1948). When we hear the siren calls for renationalisation we should be careful to remember that the worst rail accident of recent times - the 1988 Clapham disaster that claimed the lives of 35 passengers - happened under public ownership.

Even so, searching questions must be asked about the structure of the rail industry created in its hurried, botched privatisation eight years ago. The split between the infrastructure provider - Railtrack - and the train operating companies, such as Go Ahead, Stagecoach and Virgin, was designed to provide competition and to reverse the trend of decline and the industry's poor record of investment. Passenger numbers are up, many of the trains are smarter and the service often slicker, but we are still unable to achieve the correct balance between the interests of shareholders and passengers, while the quality of management in the industry remains poor, and there is too little genuine competition between rival operators.

Safety at any price is an impractical goal. But when passengers board a train, they deserve to feel that those who operate it and the track on which it runs have taken every reasonable step to ensure that the journey is safe. On balance, the decisions on issues such as improvements to signalling should always err on the side of safety. Mr Corbett's offer to resign is a tacit admission that the privatised rail-system still has a long distance to go before it is as safe as it should be. It is, however, an encouraging sign that even some at Railtrack acknowledge this fact.

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