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Blaming civils goes nowhere

Comment

In July 2003 this column described the sight of professional railway engineers facing criminal charges over their role in the October 2000 Hatfi eld crash as a 'dark day for engineering'. I pointed out that 'throwing the book at engineers - is not the way forward. It will destroy the profession and with it society'.

Seventeen months on, my view is unchanged. Without prejudging what the Old Bailey trial may reveal over the next weeks, months or possibly years, I remain uneasy about the course of action society has chosen. I genuinely fear for the impact it will have on the way engineers will be forced to approach their work in future.

There can be no doubt that the rail industry is in much better shape than it was in 2000. Railtrack has been replaced by 'notfor-profi t' Network Rail and the structure and management of maintenance and renewal work has been radically reordered, with much of this work now once again carried out in-house by the network operator.

And as the prosecution pointed out this week in its opening remarks, the Hatfield crash was the catastrophe that brought about massive change in the privatised rail industry.

Any passenger will confirm that there remains much to do on the network, but we have seen funding and efficiency grow substantially since 2000.

These improvements have certainly come about as a direct result of society's demand to banish accidents from the rail network. However, I do not really believe they have been driven by the threat of prosecution hanging over these or any other engineers.

Despite the numbers killed on the roads each year continuing to dwarf the number killed on the railways by a factor of several hundred to one, the engineering profession has now had to accept society's logic that all accidents on the railway are unacceptable.

The profession has accepted that it must meet this expectation while managing the risks that running and maintaining heavy infrastructure continues to throws up. It must work to produce continuous improvements and shout loud when insuffi ent funding, time or resources threatens this.

The public unquestionably has a right to expect that it can get on a train without risking life and limb. This goes hand in hand with the right to expect that roads are properly designed and maintained, bridges and buildings do not fall down, water supplies are safe, and so on. It is the engineering profession's job to meet society's (ever-changing) expectations.

And it is absolutely vital that when things go wrong, if clear safety procedures are breached and the public is exposed to danger, the causes are identified and those directly responsible for failures are held to account.

As the case at the Old Bailey unfolds we will get a clearer idea of how each of those accused is considered to have contributed to the Hatfield crash. We will also hear more about Balfour Beatty's role as main contractor.

Only the jury can decide guilt.

But as I said in July 2003, the management of risk in the modern world is a complex business and if engineers are prosecuted every time something goes wrong we will soon see life grind to a halt. Railways will shut, roads will close and aircraft will be grounded.

If safety cannot be guaranteed to the letter of the law then it may be right and proper to do so. But that is not the kind of world I want to live in.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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