A SHORTAGE of railways inspectors has left rail projects being thrust into service before gaining full Health & Safety Executive approval.
The recent boom in railway work has swamped HM Railways Inspectorate. It claimed this week that is was being forced to operate with a shortfall of 11 approvals inspectors despite running a high profile recruitment campaign since last November.
HMRI estimates that it needs to employ more than 25 officers to properly inspect and approve the new and enhanced railway and rolling stock schemes. The budget to take on extra staff has already been agreed but the positions remain unfilled.
As a result, HMRI has had to increase the number of projects it allows into service without full approval. This has enabled inspectors to concentrate on major projects including the Jubilee Line Extension and the London Underground privatisation.
According to rail industry sources, one signalling project on the Great Eastern Line that was commissioned over six years ago has still not received full HMRI approval. Another signal set on a later phase of the Great Eastern resignalling scheme is understood also to have approval outstanding and is currently second on Railtrack's list of signals most often passed at danger.
A Railtrack spokeswoman admitted there had been problems but added: 'We have taken a number of mitigating measures and appear to have solved the problem with this particular signal. It is only the final signing off that remains. If HMRI had any doubts whatsoever that it was not absolutely safe then it they would not have allowed it into service.'
This week Transport Minister Lord Whitty assured a conference organised by the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety that safety was 'at the heart of the Government's engagement with transport issues'. He emphasised that it had brought forward many safety related initiatives highlighting the current priority given to safety.
But the HMRI's current procedure means some projects can be commissioned following a simple 'no objections' letter from the HMRI based solely on drawing submissions. The project can then be operated before it is fully approved.
Chief inspector of Railways Vic Coleman assured the conference that there was no safety risk: 'We do 11,000 statutory notifications a year,' he said. 'We have always picked and chosen what we looked at. The responsibility for safety is not with us. Our role is just checking.'
Coleman said his budget had been increased to boost staff numbers 100 to 117, including 12 new inspectors. But just one post had been filled since recruiting started in November. Chartered engineers with a minimum of five years experience are sought, with pay starting at around £25,000 depending on background.
Shadow transport minister John Redwood said he was concerned about the situation and called for action: 'The government should put this right immediately. We do not want delays in projects,' he said. 'Equally we do not want projects being brought in without being properly approved.'
But Coleman said that the law allowed projects to be commissioned without approval under a clause in the Railways and Other Transport Systems (approval of works, plant and equipment) Regulations 1994. This allows approval to follow later.
He added: 'We have to heavily prioritise our work. We cannot do all the things we would like. Our top priority is statutory approvals where our failure would unreasonably delay a project.'