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Fine talk

Fines for rail safety lapses reached new heights this week with Balfour Beatty Rail Maintenance having to shell out £500,000 for failing to maintain track properly and causing the Rivenhall freight train crash.

Shock waves spread through the industry. Rail contractors immediately began to contemplate increased insurance premiums and tighter margins as the implications of Monday's court ruling sank in.

But considering the impact of a court ruling in terms of the effect on contractors' costs is to miss the point. The threat of a hefty fine is surely an incentive for the industry to pay more attention to safety, rather than an excuse for complaining about the cost of insurance.

This week's record fine comes at a time when the rail industry should, more than ever, be looking at raising safety standards. Today Railtrack was due to publish its fourth Network Management Statement. This is expected to contain spending promises of up to £27bn for infrastructure improvements over the next 10 years.

Doubts persist over the track operator's ability to deliver this spend, but the signs are that spending is slowly starting to accelerate. The likely result is that contractors will soon be crawling all over the nation's railways. With so much activity going on, the potential for serious accidents will increase as resources become stretched and new, relatively inexperienced rail contractors start to win work.

This week's fine notwithstanding, Balfour Beatty is Britain's biggest rail contractor with a reasonably good safety record. If it was unable to prevent a potentially fatal safety lapse, then the chances of less experienced contractors avoiding disaster would seem even slimmer.

That said, the signs are that the tide has begun to turn sharply against bad safety practice on the railways, perhaps in anticipation of the spending upturn. Last week the Health & Safety Executive highlighted poor maintenance as one of the key causes of the 1997 Bexley rail crash and stressed the need to improve safety standards. This week's record fine can be seen as a further warning to the industry ahead of Railtrack's spending boom.

And if the industry focuses on safety from the outset, fines should be small and rare. That should help contractors keep their insurance premiums low.

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