After the recent legal ruling by Justice Mackay that engineering company Balfour Beatty and Railtrack were guilty of negligence that led to the Hatfield disaster, perhaps it should be suggested to the disgruntled Railtrack shareholders that they should pay back the amount of their dividends to cover Railtrack’s fine. The details of the ruling are here. Balfour Beatty has been ordered to pay in the amount of £10 million whilst Network Rail has to pay £3.5 million as damages incurred by Railtrack. I don’t see the Railtrack shareholders taking up my suggestion and offering to pay back dividends so doubtless, since Network Rail (the company that replaced Railtrack when it was declared bankrupt by the government) is now non-profit, this £3.5 million will be paid for by us, the taxpayer, and will be diverted from the cause of making the railways cheaper and safer. As Justice Mackay so rightly points out in his verdict, “Every pound spent on a fine can’t be spent on rail safety.”

So where exactly does this large sum of money go? Will it go to the victims, of the Hatfield disaster or Southall, or Ladbroke Grove or Potters Bar, will it be ploughed into the infrastructure in an effort to belatedly prevent any further disasters of this ilk? Court costs alone are being charged at £300,000 each. There are no details that I could find as to exactly what will happen to the money or even what the prospects are of it being recouped.

I decided to look into the situation regarding the state of the rail system following privatisation. I suggest you get a cup of tea, I’m afraid this is going to be a long one!

Much of this controversy surrounds the Advanced Train Protection system (ATP) which is a method of preventing train accidents whereby trains and signalling are fitted with systems which, should a train pass a signal at danger (SPAD) the brakes would automatically be applied to the train. The ATP system was supposed to be implemented after Clapham Rail crash on 12th December 1988 according to the recommendations of the enquiry after the crash at a cost of £750m. With this system in mind various layouts were in place including bi-directional tracks particularly in the approach to London mainline stations, which without ATP were fundamentally unwise at best and like as not unsafe. It is this fact especially that underlines the lack of safety consciousness in the industry at the time. After the report into the Southall crash Richard Middleton, Commercial Director of Railtrack responded to suggestions that some of area at Paddington lines be made uni-directional ”that would not be good for the company” Many of the recommendations of the Southall enquiry were not implemented, the consequences of which are self-evident.

Plans for ATP shelved because Tory government wanted quick privatisation, in 1993 after the publication of the Hidden enquiry into the Clapham crash they had no intention of pumping any money in and there was no way they would be providing funding for the scheme having under-invested in British Rail for a decade. Neither were the prospective buyers of parts of the railway sell-off keen to have this millstone round their neck upon the point of shelling out large sums of money for the franchise. Their intention was to make money from the system not pump it in hand over fist, and it was therefore from a purely economic perspective that the safety feature was not implemented. That fact alone is institutionalised negligence.

In fact a Thames Trains analysis showed that cost of fitting ATP and amount of lives it would save was more expensive than leaving system as it was and paying out compensation in the event of any deaths caused by crashes. The report actually broke down a cost per life saved to reach it’s conclusion. This may seem callous at first glance, and certainly morally questionable, as indeed it is but you have to bear in mind this is the way capitalism works. Risk assessment is part of the industry. The irony of this was that Thames trains themselves were to find out the cost in human terms of their decision when on 5th October 1999 one of their trains was involved in the Ladbroke Grove crash just outside Paddington. It was the worst disaster since Clapham and 31 people were killed and countless others injured. It happened a mere 2 years after a crash in September ’97 at Southall further up the same line killed 7 and injured 160. The enquiry into Southall started 2 weeks before the crash at Ladbroke Grove. A good reference on Southall can be found here, it is particularly good as an illustration as to the necessary co-ordination between so many different companies in the same area.

In the case of the Ladbroke Grove crash – Signal 109 is recognised as being the root cause, it was in a bad place optically and had previously had issues and a SPAD which had not resulted in a crash but highlighted serious problems in this area. All SPADs have to be investigated as should all driver reports of problems. Following investigations into Signal 109 7 recommendations were made, only one of them had been followed at the time of the Ladbroke Grove crash. One of the train operating companies (First Great Western) had requested information pertaining to SN 109 but this information had not been provided by Railtrack. The enquiry into the crash would find endemic failure to deal with reported problems at track level and a failure of communication between Railtrack and the train operating companies.

In 17th October 2000 an Inter-City train was derailed at Hatfield coming off the track as a result of a broken rail, 4 people died, 35 were injured. As the Mackay enquiry has found this crash too was the result of negligence.

Whilst the Mackay enquiry was starting up, on the 17th May 2002 7 people were killed and 70 injured when a train derailled at Potters Bar, literally only a couple of miles from Hatfield.

It is rather chilling that in the cases of these 4 major accidents the time and distance gaps between them has been chillingly significant. it would appear to suggest some greater significance than just random chance. It is worrying that enquiries are being carried out highlighting systematic and endemic failures in the system and yet the recommendations are not being carried out and the crashes continue.

It is customary for the British Transport Police to investigate such incidents should criminal proceedings be necessary. It is however important to note that the transport police are funded by the rail industry, Railtrack, rail companies etc., precisely the people it is supposed to be investigating. This in the outside world should constitute a conflict of interest and result in the drafting of a more objective authority to carry out any investigation necessary. As an example of the danger of such conflict of interest the fact that during the enquiry following the Southall crash the officer in charge of the investigation claimed he was warned off in no uncertain terms.

Further examples of whistle blowing have shown that far from being a trend downwards the situation has changed little and there is still a huge system-wide failure to address problems of safety and maintenance, problems include the Forth bridge where numerous maintenance workers have stated that they would not allow any of their families on a train across the bridge, and repeated reports of certain track problems that go unchecked and unremedied.

All in all the case of the rail system since the mess of privatisationreally pisses me off. Not just content with running down a system that was once the envy of the industrialised world it seems that whilst speculating on the stock market seems to have obvious pitfalls if the cause of losses can be perceived as being attributable to the government then people feel that this gives them a scapegoat and all bets are off. I remember all the warnings about the value of shares can go up as well as down. This is speculation, the nature of the beast is that it involves risk. Did the British government sue George Soros because the bastard almost single-handedly caused a devaluation in sterling costing the country millions? Were we advised as a population to take a class action based on the tangible fact that the £ in our pocket was worth less due to no fault of our own? This is capitalism this is how it works. Yet, the bellyaching when those that thought they were onto a sure thing lose out is sickening. I am well-aware that there were many pension funds tied up in shares such as Railtrack, sadly this only underlines another example of how we rely to our cost on things in the private sector.

I maintain that it is counter-productive to have a public service in private hands because of the nature of capitalist economics. Whilst I take the point that for the business to be profitable it is necessary for it to attempt to provide a good service this is only really a prevalent case where competition exists for consumers should the service not be up to scratch. It is not just the rail companies where we have seen institutional corner-cutting to increase profits, and when one looks at salaries of the directors and bonus payments as well as dividends (something I have already drafted another blog on as a result of the investigations for this one.) I can’t help but think that a public company would have to be hellishly inefficient not to be an improvement on such and I do not think the inefficiency of nationalised industry is a forgone conclusion, nor is it a hinderance to have a good functioning trade union system within that framework. The key ingredient for success of a nationalised industry is people feeling that they have a place of value within society and much of that applies to where they work. This, if it can be achieved would have profound implications in social and political spheres and would perhaps prevent further deaths at the hand of an incumbant ideology that is in danger of wiping us out as we count our pennies and watch.

Song Of The Day ~ Interpol – Specialist

Original Comments:

Mark Ellott made this comment,
Naturally, I have to contribute as you did on my take on this issue.
Firstly, I agree with your point about where the fines go – they should be reinvested into railway safety. There is no ideological nor pragmatic reason why they cannot.

Where I must take issue is with your statement that the cost of life tool is a capitalist one. It is not, it is a tool and nothing more. All risk assessment, whether simple as defined in HSG65 or the more complex quantified systems use mathematical tools to assess risk and its consequential loss. It was used in BR days and all transportation systems use it to analyse where best to invest their funds. It matters not whether those funds come from the taxpayer or the shareholder, they are not a bottomless pit and must be expended wisely. A mathematical tool is the current best method of doing that. It isn’t perfect and because it is being used by people – and people make mistakes, it will from time to time go wrong. With ATP there was, of course the political dimension which complicated matters and influenced the judgement. It does not invalidate the tool though.

I would also treat whistlebowers’ statements with extreme caution. I could take you around the network and find bad track fairly easily. There’s plenty of it about. However, this must always be taken in context. I saw a piece on the local news recently. It showed a section of track at Westbury – as this was my old piece of the railway; I was familiar with it and was not surprised to see a wet bed and cyclic top. However, it was not a high speed line and is used for low speed freight – the risk is minimal. A rough ride, yes. A major derailment – in your dreams. The billions expended since privatization have been targeted at the major mainline and high speed routes and quite rightly so. No, it isn’t perfect. Neither though, is it the disaster that the whistleblowers would have us believe.

On the matter of trade unionism, a good trade union appointed safety rep will be worth their weight in gold. Trade unions and managers should work together to achieve the desired result. Under BR, it was sometimes difficult to see who was managing the workplace; the local manager whose responsibility it was, or the local RMT rep to whom he deferred before making any decision. Some of the working practices were, frankly appalling – I’ll tell you about “walking time” when I have more time. As in all things, there needs to be balance. That balance under BR was too far one way. I believe since privatisation, it may be slipping too far in the opposite direction.

On the matter of shareholder losses, I’m inclined to say “too bad” that’s what happens when you invest on the stock market. That the government deliberately forced the situation and used deceit and subterfuge gives some justification to their argument, though.

While I no longer have an ideological objection to the idea of a private company running a public service as it happens elsewhere perfectly satisfactorily, I do have vigorous objections to what happened to our railway. It was not privatised because it was in the best interest of the industry, but because it was in the best interest of John Major’s credentials as a true blue Tory. As a consequence, the taxpayer was royally ripped off for the sake of political dogma. This was criminal. Also, the horizontal split; separating the track from the people operating it was illogical. Network Rail’s decision to bring maintenance back in-house and the combined control centres that look much like the ones we had in BR days suggest that I was right.

I flatly refused to accept my free Railtrack shares on principle because I was so opposed to what was going on. A principle that cost me in the region of £3,000 – £4,000. You, perhaps, are one of the few people who would understand my rationale.

-Redbaron responds- Firstly I understand, accept and admire your decision not to accept the Railtrack shares, I would indeed have done the same. I was once pressed to accept a quite lucrative support job at News International. The agency didn’t understand how I could tell them that I’d rather starve than accept money from that source and not be able to look myself in the mirror.

The cost of life tool I am aware of is not exclusively a capitalist tool but I firmly believe that its emphasis is stronger and the criteria less within a capitalist framework, hence the cost of life is effectively worth less. Whether or not this is born out by the BR example I do not know but I would not herald BR as the epitomy of a perfect nationalised industry anyway.

You are more than welcome to take me round the network anytime, I’ve always been a fan of rail travel hence the interest in it from all angles! Yes there will be some stretches where without doubt the necessity to improve the line is less than in HST mainline area, but of course Clapham is not HST mainline area either nor many of the other examples of crashes at level crossings and such like. Obviously the investment required is huge and yet Railtrack directors received huge amounts of money and shareholders a great deal of dividends whilst the network was still in crisis. This is fundamentally wrong.

The shareholders argument is not justified as they are not taking into account the censuring of the company on almost all the reports that have been published into the crashes so far. Furthermore Rail Regulator fines were not passed on to them but pretty much paid for out of the public subsidy to Railtrack. Thus we in fact propped up their dividends all along.

I am opposed ideologically to the privatisation and certainly the example of it in this country has done nothing to revise my opinion thereof.-

comment added :: 13th October 2005, 10:09 GMT+01 ::

Mark Ellott made this comment,
An addendum to the Richard Middleton comment regarding uni-directional lines at Paddington being “bad for the company”… It is a terminus station they have to be bi-directional.
-Redbaron responds – Yes of course at some point there must be bi-directional functionality the issue is whether this should be simultaneous ie trains going back and forth on the same stretch regulated only by signalling. The recommendations of the Southall enquiry stated that if ATP was not in place this should not be happening and uni-directional track should be in place in so far as a degree of standardising the direction for a defined period of time.-

comment added :: 13th October 2005, 10:50 GMT+01 ::

Mark Ellott made this comment,
The answer to that is; yes – if you want a working service.
Recommendations are not always based in the real world. Many of Cullen’s proclamations remain unfulfilled because they were unworkable in practice. If Railtrack had not been so browbeaten, it would (and damn well should) have challenged them.

As in all things; balance. Rail is still one of the safest ways to travel. I continue to use it for thousands of miles per year and I am well aware of the current issues in the industry. Yes, it could be improved. No, it is not a death trap. All forms of transport take their toll in human life and we must do our best to minimise the risks. Want a death trap riddled with negligence? Take the car. 😉

comment added :: 13th October 2005, 12:09 GMT+01 ::

Mark Ellott made this comment,
Oh, yeah, don’t talk to me about level crossings – if I had my way, I’d close the lot. But that wouldn’t be practicable…
comment added :: 13th October 2005, 12:11 GMT+01 ::