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Squeezing safety


Nobody seems to be able to put their finger on the reason for the sudden rise in fatal accidents involving trackside workers (see News).

Historically five deaths in ten months is not bad.

In 1899, 87 died working on the railways. Thirty years ago that figure was still up at 69. From then on the number steadily dropped. Since 1994 the average has been two deaths a year.

That is an incredible achievement, but one which has to be maintained.

So what is the reason for the rise? Contractors blame subcontracted workers, saying they do not pay proper attention to safety. Railtrack agrees and will introduce a new registration scheme for rail workers in August.

But this is not the whole answer.

Another view on the problem comes from the Track Safety Strategy Group.

It points out that the accidents all come at a time when there is increasing pressure on maintenance contractors to meet time and quality requirements. At the same time contractors are trying to renew infrastructure maintenance contracts.

If people have taken their eye off the ball, it is hardly surprising. Railtrack is being squeezed from all sides by train operators, the Regulator and its own shareholders.

And all the while the volume of rail traffic is increasing.

In trying to please everybody Railtrack has failed to please anybody. It has admitted it cannot meet the Regulator's punctuality targets it signed up to in January. And its own broken rail and temporary speed restriction figures show that track quality is falling.

The oppressed always kick down and Railtrack is kicking hard on its suppliers. The contractors say they are being overstretched, using fewer people to do more work.

And that is the problem. Commercial pressures have caused people to lose their focus on safety - the only thing they must not be allowed to lose sight off.

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