Dead Men Left

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Health and safety

Transport Secretary Alastair Darling has announced relatively significant changes to the management of railways in Britain. Though they won't admit it, the government's entire railway strategy - such as it is - now appears to be a slow creep back to pre-privatisation days, though resting alongside an attempt to leave as much as possible in the hands of such delightful firms as Jarvis and Balfour Beatty. Like the political death of Tony Blair, this is a long, slow, drawn-out process, involving much frustration in Blair's case for those standing around holding spades with expectant looks; equally expectant are the unfortunate rail commuters as they wait on station platforms up and down the country for over-priced, overcrowded and embarrassingly unreliable trains - punctuality has been around 80% for the last two years.

Once the 8.53 to London Cannon Street is finally boarded, however, concerns continue to mount: there is the grim thought of recent rail disasters, for which privatisation and lack of concern rail operators display for safety have been widely blamed: explicitly so in the case of the 2002 Potters Bar crash, in which seven were killed and where Jarvis has been forced to meet victims' and their relatives' compensation claims.

It is of especial concern, then, that buried in Darling's creeping renationalisation proposals are some major changes to safety regulation on the railways. For well over one hundred years, safety on the railways has been overseen by an distinct Railway Inspectorate, incorporated since the 1970s in the stoically independent Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Darling looks set to remove these functions from the HSE into the "Office of the Rail Regulator", a body with responsibility for both safety and financial viability. As Bob Crow noted, his union

...fundamentally disagrees with the proposal to transfer responsibility for passenger safety to the ORR and away from HSE because of the economic conflicts of interest involved. There will also be the fragmentation of responsibility for safety since HSE will still be responsible for rail workers safety.

It is difficult to find any merit in a scheme that quite explicitly places financial concerns and safety issues on the same balance sheet; such a move, unfortunately, seems typical of a government that has consistently failed to take both the obvious (and popular) step of renationalisation, preferring instead to attempt to "balance" the needs of the remaining rail shareholders - principally the large banks, whose profiteering has now alarmed even this government - and rail passengers and workers.