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Culture of secrecy threatens rail safety

RAIL SAFETY is being undermined by the sector's litigious and adversarial culture, leading civil engineers claimed this week.

The alarm was first sounded by ICE chief executive Mike Casebourne. Speaking in the wake of the Ladbroke Grove disaster he told NCE: 'People are turning up to Railtrack inquiries and explaining that their lawyers have told them not to say anything. The result is a significant slowdown in the spread of safety information.'

Casebourne ran Tarmac's rail maintenance business, GTRM, for almost three years before joining the ICE earlier this year. He warned incident investigation procedures inherited by Railtrack after privatisation were breaking down because of companies' concerns over the potential financial penalties involved.

'Before privatisation, whenever a major incident occurred, British Rail would convene a panel of experts to investigate it. This panel would call witnesses, study the evidence, make recommendations and ensure they were quickly circulated throughout BR,' he said.

'This worked for the first two years after privatisation. But problems arose because the inquires dealt with issues which could have financial implications for the firms concerned. Safety problems often resulted in service delays and train operators would seek damages from Railtrack, which in turn, would pursue contractors and consultants.'

The ICE chief executive said the situation was being made worse because firms knew that evidence given to a Railtrack inquiry could be used in Health & Safety Executive investigations.

He claimed the problem was further accentuated by the length of time now needed to complete HSE investigations.

Casebourne's concerns were echoed in a report released by the Railway Inspectorate on Monday (see below).

The report says: 'On incident investigation, there are some views that this is conducted defensively and with insufficient openness.' This 'undermines confidence in the process', increases 'concerns over liability' and results in 'less readiness to draw safety lessons from incidents'.

A rail director of a top ten consultant told NCE: 'I'm aware of people who've not been prepared to speak at inquiries. This industry is driven by fear. The situation is not helped by Railtrack's reputation which is to hit hard and usually between the legs.'

Asked whether or not he thought safety information was being adequately spread through the rail industry he simply said: 'We don't see it anymore.'

The business development director of a leading rail contractor added: 'The first person I would call if I was invited to a Railtrack inquiry would be my lawyer. I wouldn't want to say anything that could result in litigation. We're no longer one big happy family.'

Another senior contractor said he and his colleagues were 'very, very concerned that things you say in internal inquiries can come back and bite you.' He added: 'A lot of senior people are walking around like zombies, their ability to contribute neutralised by concerns over liability.'

A third contractor said the fragmentation of the industry meant there was little incentive to 'pull together and sort things out'. He admitted: 'If it's not your responsibility you don't worry about it. If it's not clear whose responsibility something is, the problem can just stagnate.'

He added that the Infrastructure Safety Liaison Group did spread knowledge among main contractors, but said: 'I worry about the fleets of subcontractors working on the railways and whether the information flows down to them.'

The Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, which represents white collar staff working in the rail industry, is also concerned. Assistant general secretary John Alan told NCE: 'The adversarial contractual culture driven by Railtrack is not one where safety issues can be addressed in an open way. We have plenty of evidence from contractors who say they cannot be open with Railtrack.'

A Railtrack spokeswoman denied that the inquiry system prevented contractors and consultants from being open.

She said: 'It is irresponsible if contractors and consultants don't volunteer information. There is no evidence that anything would be held against them. If they have done something wrong, they have to hold their hands up.'

However, speaking on Sunday, Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett said: 'The old adversarial approach and blame culture must go. We must all be aligned and address the real issues.'

Railtrack's Standards and Safety Directorate has already proposed developing a more open investigation process and the development of a pan-modal independent accident investigation body. It has also sought to persuade contractors, consultants and train operators to publish summary reports of investigations on a regular basis.

Alastair McLellan

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