Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Rail safety plans challenged by regulator

By Sue Emmett
BBC transport producer

Railway maintenance workers
The regulator wants tighter control of working hours

Britain's railway watchdog has expressed concerns about radical plans to overhaul the way the network will be maintained in the future.

The Office of the Rail Regulation (ORR) said plans to change working practices and introduce new technology from next month could have safety implications.

It has outlined "significant areas of concern" in a letter to Network Rail.

The criticisms come as the rail workers union, the RMT, begins balloting members on strike action.

The union is unhappy at the changes which could include the loss of up to 1,500 jobs.

The RMT's general secretary, Bob Crow, is calling for an immediate halt to the proposals, which he describes as "dangerous" and which he claims "can only undermine rail safety with lethal consequences".

'Risk of fatigue'

The chief executive of the ORR, Bill Emery, disagrees that Network Rail's plans are "lethal".

Mr Emery stressed that the ORR supports the "core principles" of Network Rail's proposals, which were aimed at establishing more efficient and modern working practices.

But he said he is concerned how they will be put into practice and the speed at which they will be introduced. He said there may be also risks in making the changes all at once.

His main areas of concern are:

  • There have been no pilot schemes or practical tests ahead of the proposed changes
  • The written manuals outlining the procedures are not ready
  • Not all the new technology is in place, especially on the West Coast Mainline
  • Long hours could put key staff at risk of fatigue when undertaking critical safety work
  • Insufficient importance may be attached to essential safety roles, such as "look outs".

Mr Emery told the BBC: "Our concerns were serious. This is a major restructuring affecting a large slice of Network Rail's business. It is hugely important that it is successful. Network Rail needs to do this right.

"We have drawn our concerns to Network Rail. We expect Network Rail to address them properly. It has clearly been told that we will use our powers to ensure that the railways are safe and that the employees who work on the railways are safe."

He said that Network Rail's chief executive Iain Coucher has responded in detail to the criticisms and given assurances that all of the concerns would be addressed.

Strike threat

In his response, Mr Coucher explained that almost all of the key changes have been in use in different parts of the country and that other workers would be thoroughly trained to undertake them. In particular, the workloads of key staff would be monitored to avoid fatigue.

He gave a commitment that the plans would not be implemented until all issues had been fully reviewed.

A spokesman for Network Rail added: "The ORR has done a thorough job on auditing our proposals and where they have raised concerns we are addressing them. Working together we are all committed to a safe, efficient and reliable railway."

But in response to the union ballot, he said: "Unnecessary and unwanted strike actions jeopardise the progress we have all made in transforming the railways for the British people.

"Union leaders who defend outdated work practices from the 1950s are standing in the way of that progress. This is the digital age, not the steam age, so we need to change so we can deliver the railway Britain needs in the 21st Century."

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