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Are We Safe in Their Hands?

A review of the 1st November BBC Panorama programme

Byline : Wednesday, November 03, 1999
Panorama prides itself on being in the forefront of investigative journalism. However, as a piece of

"Paddington: an accident waiting to happen"
investigates the state of the railway system, where for years danger signals were overlooked.
BBC 1 1 Nov 99 22:00

leading exposť of the circumstances leading up to the Ladbroke Grove accident there was little new.

Leaving aside the justified indignation of the four survivors Siobham Hay, Steve Jones, Mark Rogers and David Miles (who also had the misfortune to be in the Maidenhead fire) for being subjected to a repeat of the Southall accident the remaining contents said little than state the already known position.

Unwittingly, however, in allowing Chris Leah the Operations Director Railtrack to talk freely, Panorama actually succeeded in exposing the true problem with our railways.

Chris Leah said:
"We are a new industry because Railtrack has only been going since 1994 - 1996 as a private company. There are new players. Therefore there is an immaturity"
This is incredible. A railway is not a new industry. Railways have been with us for 170 years and the knowledge built up in the past has achieved a level of safety post Clapham which was the envy of other administrations. Mature it was. What he meant was that the new players including Railtrack had succeeded in removing most of the skilled people who knew the issues and problems. Those with rail knowledge prepared to speak out were in the words of Andrew Lloyd Webber "- - - cut up or sat on or simply disappeared". In these circumstances the skill base has to be re-acquired which takes time and money. And in the meantime? Are we to accept a stream of accidents whilst this knowledge is learnt?

But what of our guardian angel, the HSE. Surely it is there to see that the Rail Companies behave themselves. On the November 1 programme they could not agree whose job it was to initiate action. Chris Leah again said:

"If there are problems with our signals which the HSE have a problem with then they must serve an Improvement or Prohibition Notice and we have not had any representation"
Improvement notices were served for the worst signals but only on the day after the Ladbroke Grove accident.

The history of the Inspecting Officer of Railways goes back to the days of Stephenson. Drawn from the Royal Corps of Mechanical and Electrical Engineers the inspectors had a reputation for investigation, impartiality and perseverance. The history of their work is well recorded in the book Railway Detectives by Stan Hall.

Their reputation was such that a visit from the Inspecting Officer would make the most hardened rail manager tremble. But that has all gone now. Around 1993 the fire went out just as if they had been neutered . A more cynical person might say that this corresponded with the Governments push for privatisation. Certainly, to the Government, the sale of Railway Companies with the HSE breathing fire and brimstone does not sound like a good idea. The findings and conclusions in the reports from the mid 1990's lack the directness and impartiality of those just a few years before. Conclusions from internal inquiries from Railtrack and other shortly-to-be-privatised companies appear to be accepted at face value and included without challenge. It is as if the HSE just wanted a quiet life.

However, in 1997 there is a change in Government. The Regulator and the SSRA fall into the hands of robust people prepared to call a spade a spade. Suddenly, the HSE finds its teeth too. But its all too late. 37 people are dead and almost 400 are injured.

The Panorama programme failed to bring anything new to the party other than David Miles now carries a lethal weapon on his person whenever he travels. Unwittingly, the presenters demonstrated the divisions and lack of rail culture in the top two organisations responsible for the safety of our rail network but failed to capitalise on that issue concentrating solely on ATP.

The public has a right to be concerned but not over ATP versus TPWS versus AWS which will be resolved, but in the attitudes, arrogance and entrenched positions of the people in whom we depend for our safe travel.

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This file last updated: Monday, 15-Nov-1999 18:59:33 EST
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