Leading Article: Safety must still come first

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The Independent Online
Accidents will happen, as one did on the railway near Watford last week, leaving one person dead and many injured. We do not yet know the exact causes and to try and blame any particular accident on rail privatisation is absurd. It is equally absurd for anybody to claim that privatisation has improved safety, even though there has been a sharp drop in collisions and fatalities since the system passed out of public ownership. Rail crashes are so rare that it is impossible to draw conclusions from a single year. Improved safety, in any case, may well derive from procedures or new equipment put in place many years earlier. Watford, indeed, provides a perfect example of that. Had old- fashioned "slam-door" carriages still been in use, the fatalities would almost certainly have been higher. Instead, the commuter train from Euston had carriages which, unlike their predecessors, do not crumple in collisions. These were built in the mid-1980s, when rail privatisation was no more than a gleam in the eyes of the wilder Tory think-tanks.

So will a privatised railway give a high priority to safety? Common sense suggests that it will not. Safety is always a trade-off between money and human life. Privatisation increases the weight of the money factor: shareholders demanding profits, passengers looking for lower fares, Railtrack and the various operating companies trying to offload responsibilities and costs on to each other. The point of putting the rail system into private hands was to make it run on more commercial lines; nobody should then be surprised if commercial considerations are paramount. Paradoxically, rail's reputation as easily the safest form of transport increases the dangers. Airline companies have an incentive to give safety a high priority because so many people worry about the possibility of a crash and substantial resources are devoted to reassuring them. Hardly anybody thinks about a rail crash when they get on a train - except perhaps in the immediate aftermath of a Clapham or a Watford - and so the customer pressure for safety measures is virtually non-existent.

The evidence so far of what is happening as a result of rail privatisation is not encouraging. A stream of leaks from Railtrack and the operators suggests worries among staff about new pressures and management attitudes. Last week, for example, this paper revealed a signalling failure that led to a near-disaster on a stretch of line used by high-speed trains in Scotland. A leaked memo from a senior Railtrack official said that "management and organisational issues" needed to be addressed urgently.

The Commons Select Committee on Transport commented, in a report last month, on how safety issues were getting a low priority. For example, the sales of Network SouthCentral and South West Trains on seven-year leases include no commitment to replace the "slam-door" trains, of which about 2,500 are still in use. Yet of 59 passengers killed in rail crashes in the past 10 years, all but one were travelling on such trains. The fate of the Automatic Train Protection system - which would cause a train to stop even if the driver went through a red light - provides another instance. This was recommended for the entire rail network after the Clapham rail disaster in which 35 people died in 1988. Despite pilot tests and despite its being used on new and upgraded services, the Government announced last year (with the Railtrack sell-off imminent) that ATP should not be introduced to older lines. The benefits, it argued, simply did not match up to the pounds 750m cost. Yet the cost of rail privatisation - including, as we reported last week, pounds 450m for lawyers, accountants and consultants - far exceeded that sum.

Almost any rail crash - even a Clapham, let alone a Watford - is, in truth, a trivial event compared to the weekly toll on the roads. Indeed, a rail crash only makes the headlines because it so rare - and some commentators take the view that casualties are already so insignificant as to make pointless any attempts to reduce them further. But that is wrong. British Rail, for all its faults, had a culture that put safety near the top of its priorities. We should ensure that the advent of a different culture on the railways does not detract from the safety that passengers are entitled to expect from a public service.