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Cumbersome rail structure cost lives

Last week's tragedy at Hatfield once again raised questions about the structure of the railways post privatisation. The furore surrounding the crash even prompted Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to ask shadow Strategic Rail Authority chief executive Sir Alastair Morton to review this structure. Morton was due to present his review to Prescott on Tuesday, pointing out ways to change an industry once run by a state owned monolith and now fragmented and, seemingly out of control.

If nothing else, Hatfield has highlighted that even the relatively simple task of replacing a broken rail has been made far too complicated to be carried out safely. Maintenance contractors cannot instruct renewals companies to carry out work, even if they see it is beyond the point of repair. It seems that they have to route all such requests through Railtrack.

At Hatfield, this meant maintenance contractor Balfour Beatty had to tell Railtrack to tell renewals company Jarvis to replace the damaged rail which eventually failed, causing the crash.

But Balfour Beatty told Railtrack that the rail needed replacing in a report last January. By the time the work had been authorised and the possession time booked, several months had passed. Indeed, the work was not scheduled to happen until next month, 10 months after the rail was found to be realistically beyond repair.

Rail experts believe Railtrack should not be involved in such routine work, and that it should let the maintenance contractors and renewals companies get on with the job of keeping the railway in working order. It is an argument given extra weight by the events of last week.

More fundamentally, the cumbersome procedures needed to arrange possession time to carry out vital track renewal work have also been thrown into question. It is time that Railtrack looked at ways of building possessions into its regular timetable, rather than simply allowing track inspections to drive renewal work.

In France, maintenance and renewal work is carried out daily on the high speed TGV network, scheduled into time slots when there is no traffic.

This allows maintenance to be programmed on the basis that rails have a predictable lifespan and inevitably need to be replaced before they wear out. Admittedly the TGV network only carries passenger trains and is less heavily trafficked as a result, but surely some way of planning this type of work must be possible in 21st century Britain.

Finally it would seem that the rail network is too big for Railtrack to manage on its own. It is already under pressure from the sSRA to outsource some investment and upgrade spending to privately financed special purpose vehicles, led by the train operators. The SPVs could take on a maintenance role too.

So far Railtrack has resisted SPVs, but perhaps the events of the last week will show it must seek outside help if lines are to be maintained and run safely.

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