Magazine article The Spectator

The Politics of Fear

Magazine article The Spectator

The Politics of Fear

Article excerpt

SO, the travelling public has finally nailed its enemy: Railtrack has been given top billing in the Cullen report into the Ladbroke Grove train crash, in which it is blamed for causing the accident by failing to upgrade the now infamous signal 109 outside Paddington Station. The company's share price, which has already tumbled by 75 per cent in the past year, is set to sink lower. The unions, as ever, are demanding renationalisation. Weary commuters, who have spent the past eight months creeping to work at 20mph, may be tempted to saunter down to the buffet car for a celebratory - if overpriced - can of Newcastle Brown. The evil men who have been swilling at the trough of the national rail network, with no regard for life and limb, are within sight of being driven to the corporate equivalent of the abattoir. If there is still a share called Railtrack quoted on the Stock Exchange in a year's time, there will be huge disappointment.

The story of Railtrack is a morality tale that must send shivers down the spines of the directors of any other company unfortunate enough to get on the wrong side of public opinion in an age of triumphal consumerism. If you want to understand the extent to which Railtrack has been singled out as the hate figure for the travelling public, just consider the following names: Firstgroup, Balfour Beatty and the Go-Ahead Group. All were, or had employees who were, implicated in failings in one or other of that great triumvirate of British Railway Disasters - Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield - yet all have shares that are trading healthily on the stock market this week; and that is because none happens quite to fit the role of public bogeyman.

Railtrack's role makes it the perfect scapegoat for rail disasters. It is not in a position to win praise, even if the 8.32 to St Pancras does arrive bang on time; compliments would, instead, be warmly received by the train-operating company. Yet when trains jump the rails, pass red signals or simply arrive late, Railtrack is perfectly placed to act as a one-stop shop for the bereaved and aggrieved.

This is not to say that Railtrack has not had its failings. We will have to bow to Lord Cullen in his conclusion that Railtrack should take the lion's share of the blame over the Ladbroke Grove disaster for failing to improve the visibility of signal 109 - though it is regrettable that it has become the custom in inquiries these days to place all the blame on 'institutional' failings rather than on individuals. Thames Trains, the Go-Ahead subsidiary which operated the train that went through the red signal, has never satisfactorily explained why the driver, who was killed in the crash, accelerated through several signals, ignoring the audible warning which would have sounded in his cab. For its part, Railtrack has failed to explain why no speed restriction was put in place at Hatfield, despite the fact that its engineers were aware of gauge corner cracking present at the site. Though the contractors responsible for maintenance on that stretch of line, Balfour Beatty, were hardly free of blame either. The damaged rails should have been replaced weeks beforehand, but the operation had been delayed because the new lengths of rail had been dropped off at the wrong site.

These are serious shortcomings, and heads deserved to roll, but they do not begin to explain the ire to which Railtrack has been subjected over the past two years. Beyond the facts established by Lord Cullen's inquiry and the Health and Safety Executive's report into the Hatfield disaster lies a much broader, popular - and mythical - version of what has gone wrong on the railways. This runs as follows: the railways, which were essentially safe under British Rail, have become perilous thanks to the rails being put into private hands. Private enterprise puts profit above safety, and therefore should never be entrusted with matters of life and death. When it comes to public safety, money should not be allowed to come into the equation: human life is too sacred to be left to accountants. …

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