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Wednesday, December 9, 1998 Published at 10:18 GMT

UK Politics

Call for independent rail safety body

MPs are concerned safety standards can slip

A new report has called for the removal of responsibility for railway safety from Railtrack, the company which owns and runs the UK's rail network.

The BBC's Simon Montague: Concerns over potential conflict between safety regulations and commerical interests
In its first report on rail safety, the House of Commons Transport Committee has recommended work be carried out by a new, independent transport safety authority.

Railtrack took over responsibility for safety after the old British Rail network was broken up and sold.

[ image:  ]
But MPs are worried commercial pressures can cause standards to slip. They propose the creation of a single authority, which would also oversee aviation safety.

Railtrack safety procedures and monitoring methods of the Health and Safety Executive were both criticised in the report, entitled Railway Safety.

It called for the safety record of train operating companies to be taken into account when their franchises were renewed.

The report also said rail companies were not doing enough about vandalism, which was "a very serious and growing threat to railway safety".

A spokesman for Railtrack said it had commissioned research to look at trespass and vandalism, its causes and effective deterrents.

[ image: Railtrack is opposed to the move]
Railtrack is opposed to the move
He said: "We are pleased that the committee recognises that privatisation has seen a continuation of the positive trends in rail safety.

"We remain committed to improving safety and are already making progress on many of the points raised.

"We do not believe moving the safety and standards directorate away from Railtrack would improve safety, but we will clearly work actively to deliver any specific proposals once the HSE review reports."

The report comes just before the 10th anniversary on December 12 of the Clapham rail disaster in which 35 people died. The triple train crash was caused by faulty signalling.

Jimmy Knapp, leader of rail union the RMT, backed proposals for an independent safety body.

He told BBC Breakfast News: "We believe these [improvements] are fast being lost as a result of privatisation, fragmentation and the contracting out of work. That is actually what is going wrong.

[ image: Safety was tightened after the Clapham crash a decade ago]
Safety was tightened after the Clapham crash a decade ago
"There has been a drift away from the high standards applied after Clapham and an independent agency can certainly get to grips with that."

The report also called for a three-year programme to clear lineside debris and repair boundary fences to reduce vandalism and trespass.

The committee also recommended a hotline should be set up by Railtrack and British Transport Police so vandalism could be reported and responded to more quickly.

Included in the report's recommendations and findings are:

  • Railtrack should tighten procedures for selecting and training contractors as previous monitoring of contractors' work had not been good enough.
  • The duties of Railtrack's safety and standards directorate should pass to an independent safety authority.

  • Operating companies should be pressed to improve their own safety standards and penalties.
  • Old Mark 1 slam-door trains should be replaced or modified by January 2003, as recommended by the Health and Safety Commission.
  • The proposed new train protection and warning system must be brought in on a clear timetable.
  • There should be more police and railways staff on railway platforms.
  • The HSE must undertake research to have greater understanding of how safety management systems work in practice

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