Rail 563: It should have been Tory ministers in the dock

The £4m fine plus £225,000 costs imposed on Network Rail received rather less attention in the press than it would normally have done because of the Iranian hostage crisis. Therefore, there was little consideration of the wider issues raised by the fine or, indeed, of the accident which was one of a series in the early days of privatisation that led to rail safety becoming an issue of major public concern.

In some respects, the whole prosecution, trial and fine were a nonsense. This was an event that happened nearly eight years ago and virtually everything in the industry has changed. Railtrack, which was the original target of the prosecution, is, thankfully, long gone. So is Thames Trains, fined £2m at an earlier hearing for its failure to ensure the driver, Michael Hodder, was properly trained. Even the Health and Safety Executive, whose culpability in failing ever to approve – or indeed reject – the new lay-out of the Paddington throat following the changes made to accommodate the Heathrow Express and its catenary was never put to the test, has been replaced by the Office of Rail Regulation. (As an aside, there was another issue, highlighted in my book, On the Wrong Line, that could be laid at the door of the HSE, but was never properly investigated by Lord Cullen in his accident report: why were the points past the signal set in the way that ensured Hodder’s train would be placed in the path of the HST rather than ensuring there would, at worst, have been a side swipe rather than a head on crash.)

The accident also ensured that Train Protection and Warning System would be introduced, reducing the risk from signals passed at danger by over 90 per cent. It would have stopped Driver Hodder’s long before he smashed into the High Speed Train and therefore the campaigners can console themselves that Ladbroke Grove did result in an improvement in safety and that an accident of that type could not happen again. .

Overall, too, there is the point that travel by rail is far safer than any other form of transport, and yet there is so much handwringing about it. Certainly the spate of accidents between Southall and Hatfield raised public concern but, viewed in the right context, this was nevertheless one of the best periods in the history of the industry and the 2000s have been by far the safest on record.

Then there is the most ridiculous aspect. Given that Network Rail is funded by taxpayers’ money, any fine merely reduces its scope for investment in the railway, since it has no shareholders and its bosses suffer no consequential penalty. (When this point was made in the media, however, it was always put as ‘it could be spent on safety’ when, in fact, this would not be the case since spending on safety takes precedence and there is no way the railway would divert money from ‘safety’ into paying a fine, an idea that is almost impossible for most journalists and ‘safety campaigners’ to understand). So it was interesting that while some of the survivors and relatives argued that the fine was not big enough, others suggested that it should not have been imposed at all.

The judge, who went by the unfortunate name of Bean, said he was mindful of the fact that the fine would represent little more than a money go round between taxpayers but nevertheless said it was ‘constant and lasting reminder to the management of the company and to others involved in the railways of the paramount importance of safety and to prompt attention to any identifiable risk’.

That, of course, is a ridiculous statement. No railway manager needs to be told that safety is paramount. It is part of the underlying ethos of the railway and no level of fine – however big or small – would change that. On BBC Radio Wales, however, I was challenged by one of the survivors, Helen Mitchell, to explain why the bosses should not have been fined personally: ‘they earn huge salaries but they have not run the system safely and therefore should be made personally accountable’, she suggested.

It is a powerful argument, particularly in the light of the recent accident. If John Armitt and Ian Coucher are receiving in the order of £1m annually, including bonuses, for running Network Rail, should they not pay the penalty for, say, the cock ups that led to the recent Lambrigg accident, given they have admitted that they were down to Network Rail?

It is tempting to join this particular witch hunt. Fat cats are always an easy target and there is an issue of great concern about the recent crash, given it is the third fatal train crash in succession (discounting those caused by cars) resulting from problems with the track. However, the law is confused on this. The reason that no senior company managers have been successfully prosecuted as a result of the spate of railway accidents in the late 1990s and early 2000s is that the state of the law on corporate manslaughter makes this very difficult because of the difficulty of determining who is the ‘controlling mind’.

For that reason, I will not be jumping on the bandwagon. If senior managers have created the right framework for safe operation but someone further down the line makes a mistake, then it is very difficult for them to be held accountable for individual mistakes. I think you have to look at the overall record of a company before jumping to conclusions. Network Rail’s is, incidentally, very good but as Nigel Harris pointed out in Stop & Examine in the last issue, there has been a worrying deterioration in recent months. If that can be laid at the door of top management, they should definitely resign or be sacked. Whether they could be successfully prosecuted, however, is doubtful. Successive attempts to review the law have foundered over the difficulty of working out who, precisely, would be a controlling mind and while a new law is currently in Parliament, there are still doubts about its effectiveness.

The fine on Network Rail was twice the level of that imposed on Thames Trains which suggests that Railtrack bore two thirds of the blame. That is debatable. Yes, there was a whole series of previous SPADs both at that signal and in the Paddington throat, and there was a true dress rehearsal, involving a HST and a Heathrow Express train just 20 months before Ladbroke Grove. And, Railtrack should have held a signal sighting committee meeting long before the accident which would probably have prevented it.

But if one is to apportion blame in that way, there is one group of people who have escaped scot free and ought to be fined far more, the politicians that created the ‘botched’ privatisation. Step forward John Major, John MacGregor, Roger Freeman and all their pals. They destroyed a perfectly workable model of a railway without thought or consideration to what they were doing, solely in the interests of ideology and, supposedly, saving money – the WMD of rail privatisation, as it were since there were no savings!

As I argue in my book (sorry for the two plugs in one column but it is ages since I have mentioned it), the series of accidents post privatisation could all, apart from the two caused by cars, be laid at the door of privatisation. Let’s just briefly assess each one: 
SouthallPartly; some contributory factors but probably would have happened anyway.
Ladbroke GroveCertainly; Lack of communication over dangers definitely resulted from fragmentation and poor training of driver would not have happened under BR.
HatfieldUndoubtedly; Failure to carry out repairs was result of fragmentation and poor performance by contractors.
Potters BarAlmost certainly: Mystery still surrounds accident but failures by Jarvis maintenance team likely cause.
LambriggMaybe; Did upheavals caused by contracting out and then moving maintenance back in house contribute to the accident? 

Certainly there is more of a prima facie case against the politicians than against any railway executives. But sadly, they will never be put in the dock, even for the astonishing waste of money as a result of their misguided thinking.

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