The privatisation of Railtrack looked increasingly shaky last night after a leaked document, the second this week, suggested its safety policy was inadequate.
The memo, from two senior Railtrack managers, outlines failings that resulted in an empty train pulling down a large section of overhead wiring at Hitchin, causing disruption to services out of Kings Cross on Sunday 14 May. While the incident was relatively minor and resulted in no injuries, the two managers, Jim Dorward and Peter Stanton, who work for Railtrack's Major Projects Division, suggest that the division has not yet sorted out 11 basic requirements, including the legal relationship between Railtrack and the agencies who work for it, and the respective liabilities ranging from an incident.
Railtrack employs contractors to carry out much of its work and this case raises the question over the safety regime for such relationships. The two say, "as with the Newcastle station roof fire [on 7 April this year], the precise relationship between Railtrack and the agency which employs the project manager and between Railtrack and the project manager is neither clear not available.
They warn that this area of doubt "would become a significant and embarrassing issue in the event of a major accident where incompetence in railway operational matters, or negligence, on the part of agency personnel caused ... the accident."
The two raise concerns over the competence of personnel employed by outside agencies and the procedures for both checking their qualifications and for providing any necessary training.
The incident appeared to have been caused by the failure of the project manager, Archie Burleigh of the Glasgow-based Alistair Graham Associates to have alerted operators that the line was being closed for maintenance during that Sunday. Mr Burleigh was not provided with a "full Rule Book" and the report says the "project manager's understanding of operational safety is in doubt.
Henry McLeish, Labour's transport spokesman said: "We are now seeing a shambles within Railtrack. Control is vague and responsibility is confused." The Labour party's deputy leader, John Prescott, claimed private sector support for privatisation was dwindling and questioned whether privatisation plans could survive. His view was backed by a City source who said that investors would be very reluctant to put their money in an organisation which had not fully sorted out safety issues.
Raitrack's director of safety, David Rayner, dismissed the leak, stressing that "travel on Britain's railways is the safest form of surface transport and is getting even safer, as the figures show" with rates of passenger fatalities halved over the past three years. The Hitchin incident had "questions about responsibilities which are being followed through".
Earlier this week, the Labour Party released a memo from a senior Railtrack manager which warned that Railtrack needed 18 months to put in place systems "to manage safety effectively".
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