Railtrack must learn to balance passengers, profits and safety

Rarely can an organisation have switched from complacency to panic quite as rapidly as Railtrack has managed in the days since the Hatfield crash. For years, it would seem, the company ignored all those trains passing signals at danger, refused to deal with the broken tracks and failed to acknowledge that its first responsibility must be to instil a culture of safety on the railways. Until now, that is. Now, we find that nothing, but nothing, must be allowed to stand in the path of Railtrack's new zeal to put the passenger first - even the passengers themselves, who find themselves stranded as services are cancelled for emergency work.

Rarely can an organisation have switched from complacency to panic quite as rapidly as Railtrack has managed in the days since the Hatfield crash. For years, it would seem, the company ignored all those trains passing signals at danger, refused to deal with the broken tracks and failed to acknowledge that its first responsibility must be to instil a culture of safety on the railways. Until now, that is. Now, we find that nothing, but nothing, must be allowed to stand in the path of Railtrack's new zeal to put the passenger first - even the passengers themselves, who find themselves stranded as services are cancelled for emergency work.

There would be nothing reprehensible about that were it really the case that Railtrack executives had undergone some sort of Damascene conversion and decided, at last, to put safety before profit. We doubt that, however. At first, Gerald Corbett, the chief executive of Railtrack, appeared genuinely contrite when he offered his resignation after the loss of life at Hatfield. It was the right thing to do. Equally, the Railtrack board was right to refuse to accept his offer, and all sides acknowledged the efforts that Mr Corbett had made to get to work on the massive task of making up for decades of underinvestment. But endless public relations stunts since then, featuring the chief executive, suggest that Railtrack has been more interested in improving its damaged reputation and image than anything else.

Similarly, we cannot help but wonder if the latest decision to inflict chaos on passengers for months to come by introducing speed limits and closing whole stretches of track is motivated much more by the company's wish to carry out planned work at its own convenience, during the day rather than overnight or at weekends, when the disruption to passengers would be much less. And if the work really is so urgent that it cannot wait for a few hours, then we are, at the very least, entitled to ask why Railtrack allowed such a lethal state of affairs to persist for weeks or months before taking action. Railtrack itself seems to be less than clear about that, insisting in its statement yesterday both that "the west-coast line is safe" and that "we felt the tests were necessary sooner rather than later".

The important contradiction, however, remains where it has always lain - between the interests of passengers and taxpayers (now stumping up another £5bn for safety) on one side, and Railtrack's shareholders on the other. There is a balance to be struck between those two legitimate sets of interests, but the chaos on the railways suggests that we are no nearer to finding it.

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