Police investigating the Potters Bar rail disaster believe they may have uncovered evidence of dangerous practices in which workers on the east coast main line are falsely claiming to have completed safety work.
They fear the suspected fraud could have spread throughout the network because of an alleged lack of supervision of maintenance staff engaged in checking tracks, industry sources have told The Independent.
Some employees at Jarvis Rail, which was responsible for the line at Potters Bar and rejects claims of malpractice, could face suspension for allegedly making false entries on worksheets. Any workers found guilty of fraud might be jailed.
Ministers are expected to demand that all rail maintenance companies introduce tighter supervision of workers. The news will also lead to fresh calls for engineering work to be brought back "in house'' when Network Rail, the successor to Railtrack, assumes responsibility for the rail infrastructure.
British Transport Police is known to have unearthed evidence of the alleged offences during its investigation into the Potters Bar tragedy on May 10, in which a set of points fell apart, causing a derailment in which seven people were killed.
Officers have discovered no evidence suggesting that false claims were made about work on the points involved in that crash. British Transport Police, however, still has the leading role in the investigation although it would, under normal circumstances, hand over to rail inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Officials believe criminal charges are likely, possibly involving allegations of fraudulent claims on work sheets.
One industry source told The Independent: "There is evidence of old Spanish practices among maintenance workers and that what the records are saying isn't true. It is bad enough for people to make such false claims on construction sites – after all, they are dangerous places. But for anybody to do it on the rail network, it just beggars belief.''
Inadequate track maintenance by the engineering group Balfour Beatty was alleged to have contributed to the Hatfield crash, four miles from Potters Bar, in which a cracked rail caused an express to derail, killing four passengers.
Because of that derailment, in 2000 – said to have been caused by gauge corner cracking – Jarvis took over responsibility for the east coast main line, which includes Potters Bar.
A Jarvis spokesman said that none of its workers had been suspended. "As far as we are concerned, all records and documents are in order," he said. "We have been completely open with the police and the Health and Safety Executive.''
Jarvis believes that the Potters Bar crash might have been caused by sabotage. The police and the HSE are keeping an open mind on the subject but have unearthed no evidence to support the theory.
In its second interim report into the Potters Bar crash, published last week, the HSE confirmed that the points broke apart because metal nuts were loose. It also revealed that one in five of other nuts on points in the area was "not fully tight".
Supporting the theory that the nuts that caused the crash might have worked loose, the document said: "There may be mechanisms that cause nuts to lose tightness.'' An examination of similar crossings throughout the network found that none was in the condition found in the points that caused the disaster.
There were, though, different standards of maintenance and record-keeping, and there should be a review of the whole issue.
As a precautionary measure, three sets of points on the west coast main line in the Wembley and Watford area were taken out of service. Some points in the Potters Bar area could not be tested by rail inspectors using the tools supplied by the maintenance contractors.
¿ Jarvis paid its chief executive, Paris Moayedi, a package of nearly £600,000 last year, the company's latest accounts showed yesterday. He received a £425,000 salary for the financial year to March 31, up from £330,000 the previous year. He was also paid a £150,000 bonus and other benefits in a total package of £595,000.
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