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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Does contracting out compromise safety?
Potters Bar points
Examining the points outside Potters Bar
As Railtrack contracts out much of its maintenance work, does that mean safety is going off the rails?

Three weeks before seven people died and at least 70 were injured when the Kings Cross to Kings Lynn service came off the rails at Potters Bar, a maintenance worker told his bosses of problems with the points at the centre of the investigation.

Tributes left for the dead question how this could have happened again
And in late March, commuter Kevin O'Neill raised concerns about the same section of line in a letter to the Health and Safety Executive. After a particularly nasty jolt, he wrote that a fellow passenger remarked: "If that is not a derailment waiting to happen, then I don't know what is."

It is not yet clear whether it was vandalism, poor maintenance or inadequate inspections that caused the crash.

But nevertheless, their warnings are a chilling echo of those sounded after the Hatfield crash, in which four people died just five miles along the line in October 2000. After that disaster, it emerged that cracks in the line had not been picked up during an inspection just a week before.

Launch new window : DIAGRAM
Click here for a detailed diagram of the points

'Payback time'

Railtrack owns, manages and operates almost all of the UK's railway infrastructure, including track, signalling and bridges. It contracts out about 85% of the work to private companies.

Hatfield: A rail crumbled under the high-speed train
It was the Hatfield crash that first brought these complicated relationships to public attention, when it was revealed that lines of communication between Railtrack and contractors Balfour Beatty and Jarvis Fastline were not clear.

Rail expert Christian Wolmar pointed out in his book Broken Rails that the Health and Safety Executive was very concerned that the right systems had not been put in place.

"While Railtrack assumed that the contractors were self-auditing, the HSE clearly did not trust them to do the work without extensive monitoring. That fundamental difference of approach seems never to have been satisfactorily resolved," he wrote.

The policy of contracting work out was a decision made at the time of privatisation. Although Railtrack had huge assets, it was not intended that it should have a large engineering staff, instead relying on private expert companies.

Mr Wolmar concluded that the Hatfield accident was "payback time" for that decision, and that it was the accident which ultimately destroyed Railtrack, and indeed the entire model of rail privatisation.

'More specialisation'

Yet recommendations on the use of contractors made in the wake of the Hatfield crash have yet to be implemented.

The final carriage wedged under the canopy
In his second report on the state of the railways published last September, Paddington crash inquiry chairman Lord Cullen said the number of contractors should be reduced as it was "clear that the industry has been unable properly to control and manage the work".

Although Lord Cullen wanted to see this within six months, the Health and Safety Executive revealed last month that there was still a long way to go.

But the Railtrack boss, John Armitt, has said that more fragmentation, rather than less, is the way forward. In an interview published shortly before the crash, he told the Times that, "there's the opportunity for more specialisation - smaller companies but very specialised in what they do".

Already the big contractors pass on jobs such as clearing trackside vegetation to specialist companies. He did, however, acknowledge that standards had been slipping, in part because of the increasing use of casual labour.

Although pressing before the Potters Bar crash, questions about rail maintenance are being asked with renewed urgency.

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18 Jan 02 | UK
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