LEADING ARTICLE: Don't panic about rail

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The Independent Online
Only six months before Railtrack is due to be privatised, the leak of two internal memos suggests that safety procedures are in a mess. Should we be mildly concerned - or has the time come for a good panic?

The first leaked memo details recent minor crashes and near-misses that threatened to take on the proportions of the 1988 Clapham disaster. Blame for these is laid at the door of lax safety procedure. Jack Rose, the Railtrack safety assessment manager and author of the memo, asks whether senior managers "really want to stand in the dock following a major disaster". He argues that it will take 18 months, not six months, to get to a position "where we can effectively manage safety".

Leaked document number two reveals confusion over responsibility for safety. Who is liable, it asks, Railtrack or the contractors running train services? The report calls for a review to clarify who is legally responsible if an accident occurs.

On the face of it, such criticisms are very serious. They suggest an organisation in chaos, rushing headlong towards a privatisation that will compromise the safety of passengers the length and breadth of the country. Faced with the leak of such documents it is hard for members of the public not to feel alarmed.

Which, of course, is exactly what those who leaked the documents and those who have publicised them want to happen. The rail unions know that earlier privatisations have been accompanied by mass redundancies. They are trying to protect their members' jobs by whipping up public concern over safety standards and corner-cutting in the hope of knocking the privatisation programme off-balance. While Labour, too, obviously wants to embarrass the Government.

Naturally Railtrack and the Government have played down the leaked reports, saying that there is no cause for concern and no need to delay the privatisation programme. So it is full steam ahead.

As usual, the reality is more complex than the antagonists in the battle over privatisation allow. These memos must be seen against the background of an industry that is extraordinarily safe. Managers are extremely sensitive to safety issues and - rightly - place them ahead of other issues. The public too demands a level of risk for rail travel unthinkable on the road. So the leaked memos assume the need for a very high safety threshold.

Furthermore, there is nothing intrinsically less safe about a privatised rail service. A series of operating companies should be as safety conscious and efficient as one big bureaucratic one. What matters are the ground rules and safety culture within which they operate. So there is no need for alarm simply on the grounds of privatisation.

But rail's excellent safety record still owes much to the fact that people such as Jack Rose are so obsessive about safety procedures. And what shines through both leaked documents is the worry that the pace of change is too great, that the necessary adjustments of safety procedure and liability have not been made - and may not be made in time.

So far the response from Railtrack to this concern has been inadequate. It now has to indicate clearly how it plans to accommodate the worries expressed and answer the questions over responsibility. In the meantime what is needed is mature discussion, not rumours, leaked documents and blunt denials.