Leading Article: Rail safety must take precedence

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Just sometimes, politicians should take heed of omens. There is nothing to link Friday night's crash near Stafford - involving two privately owned trains - with rail privatisation. There have always been occasional railway accidents which can rarely be attributed to a single cause. At first glance, this was a typical incident caused by a random combination of events, including the sheer bad luck of a mail train coming along so soon after a freight train had been derailed.

But the accident took place against the background of news that the Government aims to dispose of all the rail franchises before a possible general election in spring 1997. The conjunction of these two issues, the crash and the franchise plans, has set alarm bells ringing.

There are no good practical or commercial reasons for speeding up the sell-off programme, which has so far seen only two franchises privatised in the past two years. Indeed, with so few groups, apart from bus companies and management buy-out teams, expressing an interest in the sales, a slower pace might be good for competition. Other companies would have the opportunity to show an interest and enter the market. Yet the Government seems to have overlooked such considerations.

The reason is political rather than economic. Ministers are obsessed with selling off the network before the election, regardless, it seems, of whether hasty decisions harm the interests of the travelling public.

This attitude is particularly worrying because of its possible implications for safety. Last week, the Health and Safety Executive sounded a warning. Reading the HSE report on Railtrack's relationship with its contractors, it is clear that the pace of change in the railway industry is too fast, not only for comfort but also for safety. The report found that while Railtrack had set up an effective framework for maintaining safety, it had failed to monitor its workings.

The strain is beginning to show elsewhere in the railways' management. Typically, as the rail franchises are sold off, senior managers are carrying out three jobs simultaneously: preparing the railways for privatisation, drawing up their own management buy-out bids and running the services. This is already a heavy load: forcing the pace could lead to cracks appearing in the managerial systems, which until now have maintained our railways as the safest form of travel.

The push by Sir George Young, the Transport Secretary, to get the railways sold off as quickly as possible may also be politically naive. If Labour wins power and all the lines have already been sold, Labour would, for ever more, be able to blame the Tories for the state of the railways. If, instead, some lines were left with British Rail, it would be easier to rate the consequences of nationalisation against those of privatisation.

But the greatest danger to the Government would be if a bad rail accident could be firmly blamed on hasty, poorly regulated privatisation. This would not only lead to an immediate halt on sales, it would also place an appalling black mark on the Government's record.

So far, such an accident has not occurred. But the Stafford crash demonstrates the danger of any suggestion that selling the railways is putting passengers at risk. The message to the Government must be: take it easy over privatisation and, above all else, put safety first.

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