Ministers must signal safety first

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It could hardly have happened at a worse time. Just as the fuel protesters are gearing up for another attempt to bring motorists grinding to a halt, when their "deadline" expires on 13 November, jittery travellers are warned off the railways by a derailment at Hatfield. Four passengers die, many more are injured. Just at a time when a switch from road to rail may - finally - be becoming more attractive, we are rudely reminded how fragile the network has become. In the wake of the derailment, Railtrack has published a list of 81 potentially dangerous and defective stretches of line, and has imposed speed restrictions to lessen the danger. Commuters rant at the disruption - and some may be considering a switch back to the internal combustion engine.

It could hardly have happened at a worse time. Just as the fuel protesters are gearing up for another attempt to bring motorists grinding to a halt, when their "deadline" expires on 13 November, jittery travellers are warned off the railways by a derailment at Hatfield. Four passengers die, many more are injured. Just at a time when a switch from road to rail may - finally - be becoming more attractive, we are rudely reminded how fragile the network has become. In the wake of the derailment, Railtrack has published a list of 81 potentially dangerous and defective stretches of line, and has imposed speed restrictions to lessen the danger. Commuters rant at the disruption - and some may be considering a switch back to the internal combustion engine.

In this post-privatisation system, it is hard to know where to pin the blame. As our diagram on page 17 of the byzantine chain of command in the privatised rail system demonstrates, that is hardly surprising. The Independent on Sunday has consistently shown during its Passenger Power campaign that passengers often know before rail executives when there is a problem on their line - but they are not informed about how to complain to the decision-makers.

Much of the focus has last week been on Railtrack, with its responsibility for maintaining track. It knew back in spring that the Hatfield stretch was dangerous, and subcontracted the work to Balfour Beatty - which decided that it could wait until November. Gerald Corbett's offer to resign as Railtrack chief executive over the matter was right. The Railtrack board's decision to refuse the offer was correct, too. Mr Corbett has proved himself willing to take on the profiteering vested interests in the rail network. We can ill afford to lose him. Nevertheless, somebody in Railtrack allowed Balfour Beatty to schedule urgent maintenance for a far-off date. That person should go.

The train operators must shoulder some of the blame, too. In many ways, it was deeply unfortunate that a GNER train was involved in the derailment. This company is regarded by its peers as one of the better companies. It has ploughed significant amounts of revenue into safety, comfort and a clear chain of command. This compares favourably with the arcane and obscure structures generated by other operators. GNER is, at least, trying.

With so much attention concentrated on the rail companies, the Government has escaped the Hatfield crash without much blame. Is that fair? With his attention seized by the road protesters, the Transport minister Lord Macdonald has had little opportunity to concentrate on the railways. His boss, John Prescott, has been uncharacteristically reticent about Hatfield. Yet Mr Prescott is, right now, in an extremely strong position. The Strategic Rail Authority has recently published its map of the franchises which will be awarded to train operators for 20 years. The map recommends only two fewer franchises than last time. With rail competition so rare, Mr Prescott should use his power to force the SRA's boss, Sir Alastair Morton, to tear up the map he has produced and think again. As Gerald Corbett has pointed out, the Tory vision for the railways was always too fixated with revenue, too little concerned with safety. Mr Prescott must reverse that. In addition, this government, which opposed rail privatisation under the Tories, has been as keen as its predecessor on annual cuts in subsidy to rail, and sometimes seems to focus more on issues of targets for cleanliness and punctuality than safety. Of course these things matter. But lives matter more.

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