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London train crash Monday, 11 October, 1999, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Analysis: Is profit to blame?
firemen tend to the smouldering wreck of a train
Railways remain the safest way to travel
By Christian Wolmar, commentator for Rail Magazine:

It would be easy to jump to conclusions about the rail crash at Ladbroke Grove.

London Train Crash
It is the second involving a High Speed Train run by Great Western coming into Paddington, but the initial evidence seems to indicate that Great Western was not to blame.

However, there are suggestions that privatisation of the railways, which was carried out in 1996-7, may have been responsible for these crashes and may have led to a relaxation of safety standards.

This is certainly worth examining and, indeed, is one of the questions which the Southall inquiry, which started three weeks ago, will examine.

First, though, it would be wrong to suggest that the railways are getting more dangerous generally.

There were no passenger fatalities in train accidents between the Paddington crash and that at Southall. This two-year gap is the longest such interval in railway history, but should neither be used to argue that the railways are getting, safer nor more dangerous.

Railways remain the safest form of travel, safer even than air transport if deaths of passengers who wander onto the tracks are disregarded.

Nevertheless. there are some valid questions being raised about the role of privatisation.

The Southall inquiry has already heard evidence that cuts in maintenance staff resulted in a shortage of time to examine the train after a fault on its Automatic Warning System had been reported the night before.

No fault was discovered in the short time available and the AWS - which alerts drivers with a sound every time the train goes through a yellow or red - malfunctioned again the following morning.

The train was allowed to continue without it because the management - in common with practice throughout the industry - felt that it was a helpful safety aid, rather than an essential one.

Priorities changed

Even more significantly, a change in the rules involving train priorities after privatisation also contributed to the crash.

Formerly, goods trains were not allowed to cross the path of high speed passenger trains. However, in order to encourage freight onto the railways, this was changed in 1996.

In the Southall crash, the goods train was allowed to cross in front of the high speed train with fatal results.

Privatisation has broken up the unified structure of British Rail into more than 100 separate components. The relationship between these organisations is governed by contract, rather than, as before, by orders from above.

While the Health and Safety Commission still sets the rules, safety is always dependent on the little things which are almost impossible to police.

The inquiries into Southall and now this crash - which may well be merged - will focus in minute detail on whether the profit imperative has reduced safety on the railways. If this proves to be the case, many heads in the industry will roll and the whole way that safety is overseen will be changed.

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First pictures from the scene of the train crash
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