Safety in the Privatised Rail Industry

By a Railway Manager


The East Coast Main Line has had a distinctly rough ride these days along with many other railways. It would, however, be wrong to attribute this state of affairs to privatisation.

The West Coast Main Line which was modernised from the early 1960s is in urgent need of major refurbishment. Plans are drawn up to do this; who will pay?

The government's philosophy, as promulgated by the Department of Transport seems to be this - money spent on railways (including infrastructure) is regarded as a subsidy, while expenditure on the roads is an investment. As the reader of this article, you can draw your own conclusions.

The concept of privatisation is not new. Under the Conservative government of the 1950s, the British Transport Commission pointed towards privatisation with subtle hints, such as painting coaching stock in former company colours, and allowing the Regions more autonomy.

Successive Conservative governments since 1979 have led to the drive to privatisation.

The opening shots were fired in the 1980s, by creating 'rail businesses', such as Network SouthEast, RailFreight and so on. The split became more apparent when sub sectors of these businesses emerged.

The 1992 government announcement of rail privatisation and the 1993 Railways Act drove things forward. The process adopted, I suspect, may have been based on the 1947 LNER 'Landlords and Tenants' scheme.

The LNER put forward an alternative to the proposed nationalisation, that the track and signals would be owned by the state. The LNER would continue to exist as the 'tenant'. The present day Railtrack is the 'landlord' and the Train Operating companies (TOCs) are the 'tenants'.


Under the present regime as far as safety is concerned, Railtrack provides an operational framework by:

Each Train Operating Company (including freight operators) has had to produce a 'Safety Case' in regulations introduced under the Railways Act. Railtrack vets each safety case and some operators have had to resubmit them many times before acceptance.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) receive copies of accepted safety cases.

The HSE was reorganised in 1989 and incorporated a number of Government Inspectorates, including HM Railway Inspectorate, which had been part of the Department of Transport.

The Railway Inspectorate has its origins in the 1840s, and for many years was part of the Board of Trade. The Railway Inspectorate has copies of all Safety Cases, including that of Railtrack, which also has to have one.

Accountabilities have altered - Railtrack operate and police the infrastructure. Railtrack contracts the maintenance of the infrastructure to infrastructure maintenance companies, and have recently come under heavy criticism for lax monitoring of contractors.

The TOCs are responsible for day to day maintenance of rolling stock and stations. As both of these commodities are leased, major work is carried out by the Rolling Stock Leasing Companies (ROSCOs) for trains and by Railtrack for stations.

The Freight Companies, mostly now part of the Wisconsin Central organisation, are different, as they own locomotives and yards. They also own some wagons although most are service vehicles for civil engineering functions.

A throwback to British Railways days is the running of leased wagons for large customers with heavy flows of traffic such as petroleum, steel and aggregates.

Accidents are dealt with differently. A train crash on the infrastructure has Railtrack 'ownership'. A Rail Incident Officer is appointed and is the focal point between the Emergency Services and the various parts of the railway industry.

Train and Freight companies are allowed representatives on the site for liaison or recovery purposes.

Where the cause is not obvious, a Joint Inquiry is convened at which Railtrack normally take the lead. The Inquiry findings are given to the HSE and remedial action is taken by the appropriate parts of the railway industry.

Where there is loss of life or serious passenger injuries, or anything that would raise public concerns, the Railway Inspectorate hold their own formal inquiry, which is held 'in camera' until the Coroner's or Procurator Fiscal's inquests have been concluded.

The Reporting of Industrial Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR Statutes) place a duty on employers to report these to the HSE. It is of note that the Railway Reporting order of 1986 was repealed and its contents transferred to these regulations.

The number of Prohibition/Improvement Notices served by the HSE has increased. The reasons for this are unclear. It could be that there is extra activity on the part of the Inspectorate or that responsibility for solving the problem is unclear. However, the most likely reason is that track or equipment is life-expired.

These days, as is the case in many other walks of life, people are more prepared to sue for just about anything. Accidents and injuries on the railway are no exception.

With the prospects of litigation, there is a reluctance to provide immediate relief for accident victims because of the fear that this would be an admission of liability. The benefits of privatisation are that the accountabilities are more easily identified.

Who owns the railway matters not. A framework for continuing the high standard of safety in working that British railways have always enjoyed, has been established, and it is now up to all concerned to make sure it works. Together with a period of stability, investment and growth, a safe railway will continue to serve the needs of Great Britain.

The views expressed in this article are the private opinions of the writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, and are not necessarily those of Iain Logan.

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