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Friday, 24 November, 2000, 14:09 GMT
Speed limits 'threaten rail safety'
Hatfield train crash
Four people died in the crash at Hatfield
Safety measures taken since the Hatfield train crash have actually made rail travel more dangerous, it has been claimed.

Government ministers have been advised that speed restrictions imposed since the 17 October crash have disrupted drivers' routines and made errors more likely, according to The Economist.

It adds that travellers have been abandoning the trains in favour of road travel, which is statistically 12 times as dangerous.

Shadow Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) chairman, Sir Alastair Morton, has privately told ministers on the advice of SRA safety experts that passenger safety would be improved if trains were allowed to run normally, according to the magazine.

A spokeswoman for the authority said on Thursday she was unaware of Sir Alastair making any such comments, and dismissed the report as "idle speculation".

The SRA, government and rail industry are doing everything they can to make sure that safety is paramount

SRA spokeswoman
The Economist claims drivers are currently having to consult up to 16 pages of special directions detailing altered speed limits, increasing the chance that they might pass a red signal.

Signals passed at red (SPADs) are 10 times more likely to result in a fatal accident than broken rails, the problem speed restrictions were introduced to avoid and thought to be the cause of the Hatfield crash.

Since Hatfield, rail passenger numbers have fallen by almost half, although the accident rate per kilometre is 12 times higher on the roads than on railways.

The resulting growth in road traffic is likely to cause five extra deaths and 75 serious injuries, according to safety experts quoted by The Economist.

The SRA spokeswoman said: "The Strategic Rail Authority, the government and the rail industry are doing everything they can to make sure that safety is paramount on the network."

Engineers are carrying out safety checks in order to get the speed restrictions lifted as quickly as possible without compromising safety, said a Railtrack spokeswoman.

Profit losses

The report came as it was revealed that train operators may escape some penalties for service delays.

The SRA has said it will consider waiving penalties for October, to help the train companies cope with profit losses caused by weeks of rail chaos.

Speed restrictions, imposed by Railtrack since the Hatfield crash in which four people died, have caused hundreds of cancelled or late-running services.

The Times newspaper has reported that the drop in passenger numbers since Hatfield has cost the industry about 200m.

Last week GB Railways, which operates the Anglia franchise in eastern England, approached the SRA to say it was in financial trouble as a result of the disruption.

Britain's crowded roads are facing extra pressure from rail passengers unhappy with delays
An SRA spokeswoman said the authority would consider the case of any Train Operating Company (TOC) which felt under financial pressure due to October's disruption, but said there had been no such request.

She said: "If we feel it is necessary, we will relax the penalty payment rules, because of the unusual circumstances of October. A lot of the problems are not down to the TOCs.

"It is not a blanket relaxation. Each company will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis."

The SRA is in talks with GB Railways about possible help it could offer, but no decision has been reached, she said.

She said one suggestion was that the franchise could become available sooner than expected.

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has denied reports that Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is preparing to rescue the worst-hit companies with taxpayers' money.

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22 Nov 00 | UK
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