Cutting Safety is False Economy

May 22, 2022

Twenty years ago this month was the Potters Bar rail crash.  On the 10th May 2002, a train from King’s Cross to King’s Lynn derailed at 97mph.  The last carriage flipped, hit a bridge, and wedged between the platform and station buildings.  Seven people were killed.  76 people were injured. 

The subsequent inquiry found a set of points had separated when the train passed over them.  The bolts had come loose.  Yet the records showed the points had been fully inspected just nine days earlier by Jarvis PLC, the private railway maintenance contractor.  Jarvis claimed the points must have been sabotaged. 

The investigators found no evidence of sabotage.  They did find the other points in the area had similar maintenance deficiencies, which “arose from a failure to fully understand the design and safety requirements.”  In short, private maintenance firms were paying too little attention to training and safety.  Jarvis concocted a cock-and-bull story to cover their backs.  They were eventually prosecuted in 2010. 

Two years before Potters Bar was the Hatfield rail crash.  One of the rails had metal fatigue – a series of small cracks that weaken the metal.  On the fateful day of 17th October 2000, the rail finally fractured.  A GNER train travelling from King’s Cross to Leeds derailed at 115mph.  The restaurant car separated from the rest of the train and collided with a gantry.  Four people were killed, more than 70 were injured. 

Private contractors Balfour Beatty were responsible for maintaining the track.  On 13th Nov 1999 – 11 months before the crash – Railtrack’s Head of Track wrote to the Head of Safety and Risk Management:

“The balance between commercial drivers and safety are currently overwhelmingly towards the commercial. The culture in the Company is currently such that Zone Track Engineers are in fear of losing their jobs if they do not accept non-compliance.”

Four days before the crash he wrote, “the significant increase in broken rail numbers and growth in traffic is increasing the risk of derailment”

People knew this would happen.  Senior management were warned this would happen, but they quite literally put profit before safety.  In both cases, the private contractors eventually admitted their guilt, and paid £millions in fines and out-of-court settlements. 

In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club (and the film) the narrator describes “the Formula”. 

“A new car built by my company leaves somewhere travelling at 60mph.  The rear differential locks up.  The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside.  Now, should we initiate a recall?  Take the number of vehicles in the field, A.  Multiply it by the probably rate of failure, B.  The multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement, C.  A time B times C = X.  If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.”

Free market capitalism at its purest. 

In October 2002 Network Rail took over safety responsibility for rail infrastructure – track, points, signalling.  For over a decade, Britain’s railways had the best safety record in Europe.  But from 2019, government demanded that £3.5 billion be cut over the next five years. 

Network Rail plans to cut the wage bill by £100 million a year.  That’s 2,660 rail maintenance jobs.  Analysis from the RMT union shows that equals 670,000 fewer maintenance hours – a 34% reduction.  Analysis by the TUC shows that bringing all the outsourced services back in house would save £115 million a year.  But for some reason, this option is not being taken. 

The RMT are currently balloting their 40,000 rail members on taking industrial action.  This covers Network Rail and 15 train operating companies.  The other rail unions, ASLEF, TSSA, and Unite, are also in dispute. They are all campaigning to defend rail jobs, pay and conditions.  And to keep rail safe and reliable. 

Lethal crashes make the headlines.  But we typically experience poor rail maintenance as delays and cancellations.  Twice last week I had to go to Leeds.  In two return trips I experienced two trains cancelled, and two delayed because of signalling faults.  Cutting safety is a false economy.  The true cost of all those delays to passengers and freight will be huge.  We can’t run Britain as a pound-shop country. 

Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 23 May 22