Stop playing politics with passengers' lives

- Friday, 15th December 2000

 

Over the last few months travelling to, from and in this constituency has been hell. First, the petrol dispute with empty fuel tanks, empty roads and trains full to bursting. Now the rail chaos: hours of standing on platforms and in carriages or sitting in traffic jams on the M25 ? the biggest open air car park in the world.

Who is to Blame?

Certainly Gordon Brown?s stealth taxes must bear the blame for sparking the petrol dispute and two-Jags Prescott?s meddling has not helped. He must be the least competent minister with the most excessive responsibilities in any government ever.

But, to be fair, neither of them were directly responsible for the broken rail that caused the Hatfield rail crash. It is important to establish who was so that in future managers in this and other industries which take our lives in their hands know they will be held to account for any lapse in safety. We also need to learn any lessons to prevent similar tragedies in future.

However, the issue has been clouded by those who have shamefully tried to use this human tragedy to attack the previous government and privatisation. The government has been aided in this by the BBC which as a bloated public sector organisation desperately afraid of being privatised itself constantly tries to blacken free enterprise in general and privatisation in particularly.

The government of course cannot blame privatisation pure and simple or they would logically be compelled to renationalise. So both ministers and the BBC peddle the thesis that the Hatfield disaster was due to the ?wrong kind of privatisation? allegedly leading to a confusing division of responsibility.

That thesis is manifest twaddle.

The accident was caused by a broken rail track. There is one organisation responsible for the rail track. It is called Railtrack.

They have a clear and unambiguous responsibility including for the work of their sub-contractors.

Nor can the blame be put on ?decades of underinvestment?. The faulty rail was comparatively new. Indeed the suspicion is that the fault was a new phenomenon found in what was thought to be a new higher grade type of steel.

Nor can Railtrack be accused of putting profit before safety ? they had already invested in new rails to replace the one at Hatfield. What is unclear is why it had not been installed. The current inquiry will find whether the cause of the crash lay in technical, managerial or human failure and how they can be avoided in future.

Whatever their findings, the simple fact is that rail travel is 100 times safer than road travel. Rail accidents do occur on both publicly and privately owned railways ? but they are so rare that they are newsworthy.

The present chaos on the railways, with panic speed limits, diversions and cancellations is not really intended to save lives. It is to help ministers and senior managers escape blame if there should be another accident before the election.

The net result of these panic measures will be a loss of life. Millions more journeys are now being made by road instead. Everyday more people die on the roads than die in a year on the railways. More will do so as a result of these politically motivated measures on the railways.,

Privatisation of the railways has brought problems. But they are largely the problems of success. After decades of decline it has brought a huge increase in rail travel. Millions of extra tons of freight now go by rail instead of road.

It was easy to manage a system in decline with empty trains and fewer services. It is harder to manage one running at full capacity and investing huge sums of private capital to expand that capacity.

Managers need to get back their self confidence to get it running again.

The Regulator needs to ensure tough safety conditions. And ministers need to stop playing politics with passengers? lives.

 

 

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Stop playing politics with passengers' lives

 

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