The announcement of £4m fines for Network Rail over the 1999 Paddington train crash should be a wake-up call for engineering sector leaders to put safety at the centre of their corporate culture.
Railtrack, the company responsible for maintaining rail and signalling equipment at the time of the crash, admitted numerous failures in procedures which led to a commuter train passing a red signal and colliding with a First Great Western express train, killing 31 passengers and injuring more than 400. Network Rail, which took over Railtrack in 2002, is liable for the fines.
It now appears that problems with the signal had been known for five years before the crash, but the company had failed to act.
Engineering companies have a number of priorities. In addition to producing the best products they can, keeping abreast of ceaseless developments in technology and maintaining their position against competitors at home and overseas, they have to ensure they comply with financial and environmental legislation; and, of course, they must turn a profit to satisfy their shareholders. But first and foremost, they have a responsibility to ensure that their activities are safe, and that risks to employees, the public and, where appropriate, users of their services are minimised.
Recent findings from the enquiry into the explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery in 2005, along with the evidence presented at last week’s Network Rail sentencing hearing, shows that all too often, safety is almost an afterthought in corporate culture. It’s neglected at board level, making it hardly surprising those attitudes are lax throughout the company structure. But this attitude leads, literally, to disaster.
Rail safety campaigners are pressing for the Network Rail fines to be levied directly against the board members. Their argument, and it’s a compelling one, is that if the fines are paid from company profits, it’s ultimately the passengers who will pay. But it’s clear that the intention of the fine is to ensure that the engineering sector must ensure that, first and foremost, their activities are safe.
Avoiding fines and compensation claims should surely be less of an incentive than ensuring that sloppy procedures don’t cause death and injury. We can only hope that the message gets through.
Special Projects Editor