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Cost cutting threatens rail safety

RAILWAY SAFETY standards are under threat as contractors cut corners to meet tighter budgets and deadlines, a leading safety advisory body claimed this week.

In a survey by the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health of more than 900 safety officials working in the rail sector, almost a third reported that their companies were less committed to safety now than five years ago, and that the status of their role as safety officers had declined.

'This result was in sharp contrast to the wide range of other industry sectors, including construction, which we also surveyed, and causes us considerable concern' said IOSH head of technical affairs Stephen Fulwell.

He added that all the other sectors examined indicated equal or improving standards over the last five years. 'It is possible this perceived reduction in the rail sector is influenced by increasing difficulty in controlling the wide range of main and subcontractors that have evolved since privatisation,' said Fulwell.

The survey coincided with the latest Health & Safety Executive analysis of the rail industry which revealed a near 100% hike in deaths last year on the network - 47 compared to 25 the previous year, excluding deaths by trespass or suicide.

Fulwell stressed there was no evidence to link this increase directly to railway contractors but added: 'These results highlight the need to maintain a sharper focus on safety requirements. We are setting up a special rail sector group within our 23,000 members to monitor safety standards.'

The HSE is also about to commission a study of the way rail contractors are controlled. A spokesman said this follows a scathing HSE report three years ago highlighting serious weaknesses in management of contractors.

The March 1996 report ordered Railtrack to instigate 10 key actions to improve its control of contractors. The HSE study will analyse progress since then.

HSE is currently prosecuting Railtrack and four of its contractors for negligence following two separate accidents - the derailment of a freight train at Bexley and severing a power cable at Bournemouth.

However, a Railtrack spokeswoman claimed that the perception of worsening safety standards was not borne out in practice. In the main, statistics showed an improving record, she argued. The company is now six months into a major review of its control over contractors aimed at identifying safety risks and formulating consistent solutions.

David Hayward

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