Railtrack is the weakest link

Far from the initial suppositions that the Potters Bar tragedy was a one-off or even an act of sabotage, evidence seems to be mounting of another maintenance failure.

Safety – of high buildings, tunnels and of course trains – dominates the news this week.

Sadly, far from the initial suppositions that the Potters Bar tragedy in the UK was a one-off or even an act of sabotage, evidence seems to be mounting of another maintenance failure. The tragedy is only heightened if it is true that loose nuts on the points were discovered and tightened nine days before the accident because the significance of this went unrecognised.

It is made even worse by the fact that Potters Bar is so close to Hatfield, scene of the last maintenance-related disaster only 18 months ago, after which Jarvis replaced Balfour Beatty as maintenance contractor. Rail users are entitled to ask if nothing has been learned.

It turns out that Railtrack had begun installing a new type of points that would have alerted maintenance staff to the problem. Because of the company’s chronic lack of funds, though, they were only being installed when old points reached the end of their 20-year lives.

But even if they were put in across the network, would passengers be more secure? Technology can never completely overcome the shortcomings of a fatally flawed system, and the lesson of Potters Bar is that flaws in rail maintenance are too serious to ignore any longer.

The problem was eloquently expressed by the RMT’s Bob Crow: ‘We have contractors who use subcontractors, subcontractors who use agency staff, and agencies who use casual labour.’ Railtrack chief executive John Armitt also blames the growth of casual labour since privatisation for a decline in standards.

The decision to bring Railtrack back under public control and the appointment of Armitt, a respected engineer, were necessary to restore confidence in the rail network. But we question Armitt’s assertion that giving the maintenance firms longer contracts is the solution. Railtrack has apparently considered bringing maintenance back in-house, but it put the plan on ice.

This is no longer satisfactory.

Whatever the difficulties, maintenance should be brought back under Railtrack’s direct control.