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Handle with care

Rail is still, as one analyst described it, a political football. Steve Turner assesses the current thinking.

The Tory party conference was an excellent opportunity for Bernard Jenkin to show his passion and support for the rail industry.

However, almost exactly one year on from the Ladbroke Grove accident, talk of rail safety has to be handled with care.

Officials in the rail industry have been understandably reluctant to comment on the viability of his proposed shake up in industry safety procedure because of the Cullen Inquiry into the accident.

Stage two of the Inquiry is looking into the more general aspects of how safety on the railways can be improved. It is due to be completed in December.

But while both the main political parties this week maintained they did not want to pre-empt the inquiry results, both have at the same time been doing just that.

First Jenkin's assertion that 'for the first time there should be specific rail safety legislation' opened up debate.

At present, when new specific rail legislation is required, it is bought in under the Health & Safety at Work Act, so it is unclear whether this new body would actually be needed.

In fact many professionals in the rail industry believe the proposals are unnecessary as all the procedures are already in place. The HSE has overall control of safety on the railways, they say, so little more needs to be done.

However, last week John Prescott added to the debate and to the HSE's workload as he laid new rail safety regulations before Parliament.

These will switch approval of train operators' safety cases away from Railtrack to the HSE.

The regulations will come into force on 31 December, when a new independent rail safety company, Railway Safety, is to be set up within Railtrack to replace the company's Safety & Standards Directorate.

Just how much this new legislation will have learned from the Cullen Inquiry report is questionable. Certainly there is another Government consultation paper looking at revisions to the existing rules governing the rail works approval system and this will take on board Lord Cullen's views. But the crux of the issue is surely whether HSE has the resources to carry out its new role. Cullen, no doubt, would help here.

The reality is that the rail industry is a highly emotive subject and so has become an issue which the politicians can easily use to score points both against each other and with the public.

The irony is that all are now essentially singing from the same sheet and are equally horrified at the prospect of a repeat of Ladbroke Grove.

Ensuring the resources are in place to prevent that should now be everyone's priority.

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