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Potters Bar response puts engineers in charge

Comment Antony Oliver

Pictures of rail workers preparing to remove the fatal fourth carriage from Potters Bar station this week are a stark reminder of the scale of the consequences when public transport infrastructure goes wrong.

In this case it looks likely that Friday's tragedy was caused by four nuts missing from the stretcher bars on a set of points. Once again the processes behind running a safe, modern railway are under the spotlight along with the whole philosophy of how the industry is set up.

The media - and NCE is no exception - is intent on exposing the gaps in current industry and political thinking on the railways. For the sake of the victims of this terrible tragedy it is both right and important that this scrutiny takes place.

Questions need to be asked, those in charge need to face their responsibilities and explain what has happened. If confidence is to continue in the rail industry - for let us not forget that the numbers using the railways has grown by around 35% since privatisation - the public needs to be convinced that the industry knows what it is doing.

Of course this does not mean a witch hunt. For no matter how hard we look for wider causes and responsibilities, it remains galling that just four small components in a highly complex system led to the death of seven people and turned thousands more lives upside down.

But as civil engineers it is our duty to look at the disaster and seek answers to the many questions. How did these bolts come to be missing? Who was supposed to check that they were in place? And as civil engineers we must expect that steps are taken to ensure similar vital and catastrophic mistakes are not made in future.

To their credit, the message put across so far by the engineering professionals involved is one of refreshing openness.

Much speculation has been avoided by early information from investigators and in particular by Railtrack chief executive John Armitt.

During the critical first hours and days of the national media frenzy, engineers have been prepared to make comments, to give updates to news crews with disarming honesty. We have not seen the hostility and secrecy that followed previous rail disasters. Expert speculators have therefore been quickly ridiculed.

This openness is a good sign for the industry and a good sign for the engineering profession.

It indicates that engineers are in charge - people who know what they are talking about and have genuine and uncompromising concern for real people are free to explain what they are doing.

So while we must subject this tragedy to the utmost scrutiny over the next weeks and months, we must also keep in mind the substantial improvements that have already been made to the railways and the rail industry since Hatfield, Ladbroke Grove and Southall - not least to put engineers, like Armitt, in positions of power.

This crash proves that there is still work to do. But the engineers are now in charge of the railways and they do actually know what they are doing.

Let us continue to learn and improve but not destroy, abandon or ignore the achievements made so far simply to gain a scalp.

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