By Julian O'Halloran
File On 4
Network Rail has been criticised for the way its staff inspect track, find defects and schedule repairs, in an official report, the BBC has learned.
Network Rail says the Cumbria train crash was due to local problems
Reports seen by BBC Radio 4's File On 4 programme describe staff shortages, fatigue, overstretch and time pressure among workers and supervisors.
Network Rail (NR) chief executive Iain Coucher disputes official suggestions of systemic inspection failures.
Rail regulators say NR has until 31 March 2008 to improve track inspection.
The unpublished report was by inspectors from Her Majesty's Rail Inspectorate (HMRI), who visited 28 areas and maintenance depots from Scotland to the south of England to investigate methods and systems of patrolling the tracks following the Grayrigg crash in Cumbria.
One woman died and 89 people were hurt when a Virgin train was derailed in February 2007.
The railway inspectors, who are now part of the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), completed their report in November, but it has yet to be published.
The inspectors say overall track patrolling is carried out by competent and experienced staff and is given a high priority by all involved in the process.
However the investigators also highlighted the following problems:
- Numerous track inspection concerns risk defects going undetected
- Track maintenance gangs are continually being stretched further and further
- Patrols have been missed or carried out by staff who do not know the tracks they are inspecting
- There is little evidence that patrollers' performance is monitored by supervisors or managers
ORR chairman Chris Bolt told the BBC: "If the patrolling isn't being carried out properly, then Network Rail can't be sure that the track is as safe as they would want it to be.
"We need to make sure that the patrolling... allows Network Rail to identify defects before they become a safety risk and to deal with them.
"We have not been satisfied as yet that their procedures are achieving that objective."
Further safety reports into derailments reveal concerns over how soon and how well Network Rail actually repairs known track defects.
The reports, by the Department of Transport's Rail Accident Investigation Branch, followed three derailments, at Waterloo station and at Epsom in Surrey in 2006.
There were no casualties in those incidents, but a solicitor representing relatives of victims of the 2002 Potters Bar rail crash, which killed seven people, said the Epsom case "appears to have the same features as Potters Bar and Grayrigg".
But NR chief executive Iain Coucher defends his network's safety record.
"We are proud of the fact that the rail industry is the safest form of transport in the UK," he told the BBC.
He stated that the mistakes made in the Cumbria crash were localised, adding: "We do not accept there is a systemic failure in our inspection regimes."
Mr Coucher said NR was working closely with the HMRI to identify areas for improvement in its inspection regime.
He also said the problems at Epsom and Waterloo were localised.
"These people are under a lot of pressure to get the railway back and operating at Waterloo station, and the Epsom area is probably the most intensely used piece of railway in western Europe," Mr Coucher added.
He said NR had one of the most sophisticated systems of works management used by some of the world's best railways.
Hear the full story on BBC Radio 4: File On 4 Tuesday 5 February 2000 GMT, repeated Sunday 10 February 1700 GMT or online at File on 4 website.