Why Privatisation Makes Railways Unsafe. (Leader)

New Statesman (1996), May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Why Privatisation Makes Railways Unsafe. (Leader)


The sequence of events after a rail disaster is now familiar: first, the speculation (or the hope in some quarters) that vandalism or, more excitingly, sabotage is the cause; next, the attempt to blame some lowly worker (a driver, an engineer or a signalman); and finally, an inquiry which establishes that, all along, the responsibility lay with poor management and poor safety standards. As a coda, the inquiry makes recommendations, which are acted upon, if at all, only tardily. And after a decent interval, we learn that -- in the absence of a note signed by a fat controller stating "we need profits, and we don't care if people die" -- no company or senior person can possibly be held responsible, still less charged with manslaughter or negligence.

So far, the Potters Bar disaster on 10 May, in which seven people died, has followed this pattern almost precisely; details are beginning to emerge of how the faulty points that caused the crash had created concern for weeks before, of warnings given and ignored. We are told not to rush to judgement as to the causes. But the apologists for privatisation (who must, since they did not immediately renationalise, include new Labour ministers) have no such difficulty. They are ready with the usual litany. Rail is still safer than roads; there were worse disasters under British Rail; other countries have safe privatised systems; we don't worry about privately owned aeroplanes taking off from separately, owned airports and being maintained by separately owned private contractors. All this maybe true, but it is utterly irrelevant. Motoring has become safer and more comfortable, and people expect rail to do so, too. (In fact, railway safety had been improving steadily for decades and in the seven years before privatis ation there were just eight deaths.) The relationship between an aeroplane and a runway is not nearly so complex as that between a train and its track. Most telling of all, inquiries have shown that each of the main disasters since privatisation -- Southall (seven dead), Ladbroke Grove (31 dead) and Hatfield (four dead) -- were largely attributable, in a very precise way, to the failures of a fragmented system under private ownership.

At Ladbroke Grove, for example, the driver passed a red signal on a section of track where this problem had repeatedly occurred and where there were difficulties in sighting the signals. A middle-ranking executive at First Great Western tried to persuade Railtrack to act but couldn't find exactly who was responsible and kept being fobbed off. In the new structure of the railways, she was an outsider, a mere customer finding it hard, as we all do when dealing with large organisations, to get hold of the right person. The Cullen inquiry into the disaster reported "incompetent management and inadequate process". Christian Wolmar, in his book Broken Rails, finds this verdict too kind. "Treating recommendations of inquiries as if they were irrelevant, persistently failing to take. …

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