The Railway Inspectorate held the first of a series of urgent meetings with Railtrack yesterday after the leak of a memo at the weekend which suggested that lax safety arrangements had led to a series of near- misses.
The urgency of the action by the inspectorate, which is part of the Health and Safety Commission, suggests that the issues raised in the memo are serious enough to threaten the rail privatisation programme.
The Railtrack memo, from Jack Rose, the organisation's manager of safety assessment, says that a Clapham-style disaster was averted in two cases only by "the final link in the chain", and warns that two minor collisions involving maintenance vehicles could have had "disastrous consequences" if the trains concerned had not been of modern design.
Referring to the two collisions earlier this year - at Stratford, east London, in March and at Waltham, north London, in June - the memo says: "If the train body had been of the older, wooden-based construction, the events could have led to the ripping away of the side of the train with disastrous consequences."
Railtrack took over the track and other infrastructure from British Rail on 1 April last year as part of the break-up of the railways in preparation for privatisation; its safety case for the first three years of operation was granted by the Railway Inspectorate in March that year.
However, critics of the process said at the time that splitting the infrastructure from the train operations would inevitably reduce safety and Mr Rose's memo suggests that safety systems have still not been properly worked through following the separation.
Mr Rose is a leading authority on risk assessment in transport systems and carried out the review of procedures on London Underground following the King's Cross fire in 1987.
The memo, leaked to the Labour Party's transport spokesman, Henry McLeish, concluded that it would take at least 18 months for Railtrack to be in a position "where we can begin to effectively manage safety" and warns: "We would need those systems in place to adequately defend ourselves following an accident."
Mr McLeish called for the privatisation of Railtrack, which has been scheduled by the Government to take place early next year, to be delayed while safety arrangements are sorted out.
However, in a BBC interview yesterday, Stephen Norris, Under-Secretary of State for Transport, said there would be no delay to the privatisation programme as there had been "a very thorough examination by the Health and Safety Commission" on the safety issues raised by privatisation and the Government had accepted all the HSC's recommendations.
Labour is promising to unveil more evidence today of what it calls "the safety crisis on the railways".
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