Ministers must signal safety first

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat