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

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

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26  

General Election 2015: It's time we forgot what school we all went to

Stefano Hatfield
 

In Sickness and in Health: A night out to show I’m still Rebecca as well as a carer

Rebecca Armstrong
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions