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Which way ahead for safety?

For over a hundred years the Permanent Way Institution has been guiding the rail industry towards improved safety. To start our rail special Antony Oliver talks to its president Martin Reynolds about the industry's current problems.

Lack of money is not the problem on the railways, according to Martin Reynolds, president of the Permanent Way Institution. Despite this week's headlines about how much the recent Hatfield derailment will cost Railtrack, what is holding the industry back is its structure and approach to maintenance.

But money, and the need to earn it, is certainly an element of the problem. The train operating companies need to keep the trains running and Railtrack needs to keep track available.

Without all parties operating to aligned objectives no one can afford to say stop and it is repair and maintenance that will always suffer.

'You have got to have a situation where you can make a decision, ' says Reynolds. 'Railtrack has an obligation - safety is an issue where you haven't a choice. In the past if you reached a point where you said 'I can't live with this any longer', then you did know that there was someone to refer it to. Before privatisation is was 'what have I done'. Now it is 'who did it?'' Reynolds is a former Railtrack director who has run the Great Western Zone and was then responsible for Railtrack investment projects. He is certainly not in the Railtrack bashing camp or against rail privatisation and says he has seen great improvements over the whole industry in his time. But he does have concerns about the way commercial alignment is now affecting rail industry performance.

Ironically this is not new, he adds. The PWI was formed in 1884 as a learned society specifically to boost status and stop commercial forces taking skills from the industry. Drivers were paid more than track inspectors.

The PWI gave the inspectors the clout to increase emphasis on safety, reliability and cost and at the same time increase their own pay.

The situation now is straightforward, he says. No one is quite sure of the condition of the track. He argues that if it is made possible to measure the condition and see what needs fixing regularly then you can gear up to shut down the track in advance.

Such planning is not possible, he fears, hence Railtrack's current blitz on the network and the chaos that goes with it.

A system where work can be done at the right time is crucial.

'You have to have the guts to do what you think is right, ' he says.

'If the track is not going to be fit for purpose unless you take action then you have to make sure that people feel empowered to make the decision.'

Giving staff the confidence to make this potentially life-saving, potentially expensive, decision to stop trains for repairs is a tough problem, but one that has been tackled in the past, says Reynolds. He refers to the system developed under British Rail which later became known as the Green, Yellow, Red system. If there was a problem that you could handle then it was labelled green. If you needed to refer the problem for advice it became yellow. If you had no authority to act then it was red.

'Under this system, if people thought there was a real problem then there was a system to rely on, ' he explains. He points out that whatever systems are used today, they have to have that same clarity.

'There is no culture of cutting corners and it is not my experience that there has ever been one. But if you do not have the structure in place then there will be a problem, ' he says. 'We need a consistency of contractual obligation - it needs definition and clarification. But contracts are not all the answer. If you think the next train is going to come off then go and do the work.'

The industry, he believes, needs a leader to help these decisions to be made with confidence, outside the onerous contractual obligations. This should be Railtrack, he says, because it is at the centre of the commercial chain.

But in reality, he adds, it is more likely that Sir Alastair Morton and the shadow Strategic Rail Authority will take the lead.

'Sometimes people do things with influence and not with power, ' he points out. 'When Morton talks you see people listen - he's a very believable character.'

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