How a 'white knight' for railways quickly fell from grace

Barrie Clement,Transport Editor
Friday 10 October 2003 23:00

Jarvis has been fast taking over from the late and un-lamented Railtrack as one of Britain's least popular companies.

Ironically, in the wake of the Hatfield disaster in 2000, the group was seen as a white knight riding to the rescue of railway engineering. The rival group Balfour Beatty's contract to maintain the east coast main line was not renewed after the Hatfield crash, and Jarvis took it over.

But, on 10 May last year at Potters Bar, a few miles south of Hatfield on the same line, Jarvis began its fall from grace. Rail inspectors at the Health and Safety Executive have said the probable cause of the Potters Bar disaster, in which seven people died, was management failure. The most thorough report yet into the crash blamed "inappropriate adjustment and insufficient maintenance" of the points.

Inspectors found that several weeks after the crash, maintenance workers were still failing to apply "good practice" to similar points on other parts of the network. The company has continued to insist - to the scepticism of rail inspectors and British Transport Police - that sabotage was the most likely cause of the derailment.

More recently,The Independent revealed serious breaches of safety regulations at Milton Keynes. After work to renew track at the Buckinghamshire station on 20 August, Jarvis staff left the line in such a dangerous state that debris flew into the air as a 100mph express passed, injuring two passengers on the platform.

On the same day at Retford, Nottinghamshire, a Network Rail log disclosed that Jarvis failed to halt trains after a broken rail was discovered. Last month Jarvis was fined £4,000 and ordered to pay £2,500 costs after two rail workers were electrocuted near York when a crane jib hit an overhead power line. In March it was fined the maximum £25,000 after a rail vehicle carrying workers, but not intended for that purpose, derailed and overturned. The group is also facing court proceedings in Liverpool over the death of a girl aged eight who stepped on a live rail.

But the incident which put paid to Jarvis's interest in rail maintenance contracts came on 16 October at King's Cross station in London. An express leaving the station with 150 people on board came off the tracks because a 5ft length of rail was missing after overnight points repairs. Jarvis admitted that a blunder by its engineers caused the derailment. The incident overshadowed the official opening of Britain's first high-speed rail link from the Channel Tunnel to north-west Kent.

Later this month Jarvis faces a charge of breaching health and safety law over the derailment last year of an empty coal train at Aldwarke Junction, South Yorkshire. It is alleged that a set of points was left in a similar condition to those at King's Cross. Jarvis has indicated that it intends to plead not guilty.

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