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Hatfield: the final straw?

Three months after the Hatfield crash many issues surrounding the operation of our railways need to be resolved. Steve Turner reports.

Since the Hatfield crash in October, the rail industry has rarely been off the front pages. It seems as if everything from a rise in the number of drunk drivers to a fall in Selfridges' profits has been blamed on the industry.

Virtually everybody has an opinion on what should be changed and how the industry should be run.

On its own the disaster would probably not have resulted in the ensuing clamour for action, but because it followed so soon after the Ladbroke Grove crash, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. So Hatfield has had more impact than preceding crashes, putting the industry in the spotlight and forcing calls for change.

Every train crash is seen as a watershed for the rail industry, but few seem to have brought about real changes in the way it is run. Perhaps Hatfield will be different.

The industry has been forced to look more closely at the way it operates and does appear to be taking action. One insider said failure to respond this time would mean 'we are stupid and have not grasped an opportunity for change'.

After speaking to many key players in the rail industry NCE has identified the critical questions it now faces.

Was the post Hatfield re-railing programme an over reaction?

Railtrack says it was very necessary as another accident would be calamitous for the industry.

But the extensive programme compounded passenger misery, and has driven people on to statistically more dangerous forms of travel.

By continually revising and delaying the completion date for the programme, Railtrack has further undermined public confidence. It failed to appreciate the condition of its own infrastructure, calling into question its knowledge of its assets. This is one reason why the management changes announced before Christmas were required.

Fall out from the accident also highlighted the collapse in relations between Railtrack and its maintenance subcontractors.

Railtrack must ensure improvements to the new style IMC2000 contracts tighten up communications between it and its contractors. It should also ensure that dangerous track is highlighted early and that efforts are made to stop trains from using it.

It is essential that shadow Strategic Rail Authority chairman Sir Alastair Morton's call for a crisis management plan for the railways be taken up. It is statistically inevitable that at some point there will be another serious train crash. The industry must be ready to respond efficiently, without the 'nervous breakdown' we have experienced over the past few months.

Can rail travel ever be safe?

No mode of travel can ever be completely safe, and relative to other transport types rail compares very favourably. But the public has a very low tolerance of deaths and injuries on the railways compared to other modes.

Morton sums this up with the example of a Sainsburys lorry that crashed on a motorway only days after Hatfield, killing six.

He points out that there was no national outcry to close the road or abolish the Highways Agency and the motorway was cleared and reopened within hours.

What should be the role of the Health & Safety Executive?

The Health & Safety Executive alone has to ensure safety standards are met, but its powers need to be beefed up. The regulator and sSRA can fine Railtrack for missing performance targets. The HSE should be given similar powers.

Railtrack's independent safety body, Railway Safety, must also be given the chance to establish industry standards that will safely introduce regulations to cover the relationship between vehicles and the infrastructure.

There is no doubt that the rail industry is difficult to regulate safely because of its fragmented nature, but the same is true for the airline industry which manages it much more efficiently.

Should Railtrack continue in its current form?

There has been a lot of talk about renationalisation, or bringing Railtrack under partial government ownership. But the last thing needed at this point is more change. The industry is where it is now because of ill thought out changes imposed by politicians. It is now generally accepted that major mistakes were made at privatisation. But the industry must put this behind it and get on with the task in hand.

Beneficial change will take time. The Government needs to give Railtrack direction and then leave it to get on with it. And after years of neglect, there has been significant investment since privatisation. This should not be wasted.

In the end, Railtrack had no choice but to accept the resignation of Gerald Corbett who, fairly or not, had become a figure of public ridicule.

Under the new leadership of Steve Marshall, relations with rail regulator Tom Winsor seem to have improved, although many in the industry do not see Marshall as a long term replacement.

Does it matter that Railtrack's new chief executive is not a civil engineer?

The chief executive does not necessarily have to be an engineer, although he does need to be somebody who has respect and gravitas, and be able to assemble a good team of engineers around him.

Railtrack does now seem to be starting to appreciate that it owns a piece of engineering, and its success is dependent upon engineers.

The promotion of people like chief engineer Andrew McNaughton, an engineer with business acumen, is definitely a step in the right direction.

What should be the roles of the regulatory bodies?

There is a danger that the various regulatory bodies will be too tough on Railtrack, making it harder for the organisation to make money. Squeezing Railtrack's profits would also make it more difficult for the track operator to raise the money it needs to fund infrastructure improvements, as borrowing terms would become more draconian.

Winsor's job is to ensure that public money given to Railtrack from the public purse is spent wisely. He should back away from being too interventionist and set realistic targets.

Railtrack has now accepted targets set out in Winsor's regulatory review, which in the current climate would have been very difficult to contest.

The revised targets require Railtrack to improve efficiency by an average of 4.2% over the next five years.

The company has previously described this target as unfair, at the same time demanding expansion and investment.

An encouraging sign is Winsor's indication that he will 'consider sympathetically' requests from Railtrack for revised efficiency targets and for payments to be brought forward in the light of Hatfield.

The sSRA is due to lose its shadow tag at the beginning of February.

The Authority should use the opportunity to push itself forward as an industry leader. A lot of people in the rail industry are still unclear about its role.

In a fragmented industry, Sir Alastair Morton is somebody who has respect both in parliament and across the rail business.

The sSRA needs to use this to bring together the various and sometimes estranged parties and push through policies that will lead to change.

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