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London crash raises questions about rail safety

The British government this week relieved a private operator of

- more than a week after Britain's worst railway disaster in more than 25 years, its entire rail network is under intense scrutiny.

Prime Minister Tony Blair described the crash as "an unimaginable horror." But he is being pressed to explain why Britain's track-safety record compares unfavorably with other European countries, despite efforts by train operators in recent years to modernize an aging rail system.

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The government responded Monday by saying it will remove responsibility for rail safety from Railtrack, the private company that owns and operates Britain's rail network, and put it in the hands of an independent body. Gerald Corbett, chief executive of Railtrack, said he accepted the decision but defended his company's record, saying, "We have to move forward and build something from this disaster."

Railtrack and the two train companies involved in the accident also face the possibility of losing their licenses. An investigation is looking into whether the companies violated operating rules. Government sources say criminal prosecutions for alleged managerial failures in the run-up to the accident cannot be excluded.

Recovery crews observed a moment of silence on Tuesday, the one-week anniversary of the crash. On Oct. 5, a crowded high-speed express train from western England smashed into a local suburban train leaving London's Paddington station. Police said at least 30 people were killed, including the two drivers.

An initial report by the government-run Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) railroad watchdog said the local train had run a red signal light. Both trains had advance warning systems, in which loud horns warn the driver of approaching red lights.

The express train also had an automatic train protection (ATP) system, which automatically stops trains from going through red lights, but it was turned off. The HSE noted, however, that the express train had only passed green signals.

Earlier this year, Mr. Blair set up a Strategic Rail Authority to try to make more sense of the country's privatized train system. The authority, which has barely begun its work, is expected to play a leading role in future railway arrangements. Sir Alister Morton, its chief executive, is a former chairman of Eurotunnel, the company that managed construction of the undersea rail link between Britain and France.

Trade union leaders are mounting an attack on the policy of privatization, which resulted in the former government-owned British Rail being broken up into eleven separate commercial companies, plus Railtrack, in the mid-1990s. They also are asking why the ATP safety system was not installed on the network, despite recommendations a decade ago by a government commission.

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Peter Raynes, a leading rail-safety consultant, says the origins of the latest train disaster lie in the "fragmentation of the rail system under privatization" and the tendency of commercial train operators "to put profit ahead of safety in their scale of priorities."

Mr. Raynes points out that 10 years ago a public inquiry into an earlier train disaster near London strongly recommended that the ATP system be fitted to all high-speed trains. "The government of the day decided against the system," he says, "because it would have cost 1 billion ($1.65 billion)."

In the wake of last week's disaster, critics of rail privatization have noted that state-owned railways in continental Europe have much better safety records. Between 1986 and 1996, according to European Union figures, Britain's rail-passenger death rate was three times higher than those for Italy, Belgium, Spain, and Sweden, and higher than the EU average.

In most major EU countries, train operators use the ATP or a comparable safety system. Britain's neighbors in Europe also invest more in their transport systems. In France, where trains are state-owned, 1.1 percent of gross domestic product is invested annually in transport infrastructure, compared with Britain's 0.9 percent. Germany's state-owned Deutsche-Bundesbahn is funded at 1.2 percent of GDP.

Meanwhile, the Blair government is being urged to abandon plans to sell off 51 percent of the state-owned air traffic control system to a private operator. Gavin Strang, a senior Labour Party member of Parliament, said the government "must think again" about its decision.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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