Leading Article: Rail safety must take precedence

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Circles South East Youth Service: Youth Services Volunteer

this is an unpaid voluntary position: Circles South East Youth Service: LOOKIN...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £30,000+

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading privately owned sp...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is require...

Recruitment Genius: Logistics Supervisor

£24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest supplier to the UK'...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Yorkshire Terrier waits to be judged during the Toy and Utility day of the Crufts dog show at the NEC in Birmingham  

There are no winners at Crufts. Dogs deserve better than to suffer and die for a 'beauty' pageant

Mimi Bekhechi
 

Daily catch-up: how come Ed Miliband’s tuition fee ‘cut’ is so popular, then?

John Rentoul
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn