In harm’s way

When disasters strike, enquiries follow. And when members of the public are harmed or killed, folks have the right to know how such catastrophes could have happened in the first place.


‘M. A. Mortenson was awarded a delivery order amount of $10,119,000 for a countermine training facility and a dog kennel with runs.’ – US Department of Defence Press Release.



When disasters strike, enquiries follow. And when members of the public are harmed or killed, folks have the right to know how such catastrophes could have happened in the first place. And if, and how, they might be prevented from doing so again.



In the UK Hatfield rail disaster of 2000, the physical causes of the train crash that killed four people and injured over one hundred more are now well documented. A rail line identified as faulty over a year before the accident was left unrepaired. As a result, the rail shattered when a train travelling from King’s Cross to Leeds crossed that section of track at over 100 miles per hour.



Just yesterday, a trial involving Network Rail found that the company, in its former incarnation as Railtrack, was guilty of offences under the UK Health and Safety at Work Act.



The good news is that since Network Rail took over the nation’s railway infrastructure some three years ago, it has made some fundamental changes to its modus operandi.



Maintenance has been taken in-house rather than being outsourced, and the company has changed its approach from a ‘find and fix’ maintenance regime to one of ‘predict and prevent’.



But there’ll be no punishment dolled out to any individuals. Not to anyone at the company itself, or perhaps more pertinently, to any members of the UK Government.



Because let’s face it, it was the Government that promoted the idea of running the railway network in such a mismanaged way in the first place. No-one, it seemed, really cared enough about the UK travelling public to spend a sufficient amount of time or money on the rail network to make it safe.



Our Government’s poor attitude towards its citizens is not unique. Our comrades in arms in the US are now realising that their Government thinks very much along the same lines.



The nasty hurricane that hit New Orleans proves the point. The levees around that city were only designed to withstand the impact of a Force 3 hurricane. The hurricane that hit, of course, was somewhat larger.



And now, members of the US Government are to conduct their own enquiry into the causes of the tragedy to find out what went wrong and how things could be improved in the future.



But they really needn’t bother. They might simply apply the lesson that the UK Government learned from the Hatfield crash: if you spend enough money to ensure that your civil infrastructure is sound, you don’t run the risk of putting your citizens in harm’s way. Scrimp on safety and more disasters will ensue.


Dave Wilson


Editor


The Engineer Online



A reader replies:


Sir:


You are correct that we need to spend to protect the travelling public and that government should shoulder some of the blame and cost. I would point out however that it was a conservative government that gave us the dog’s breakfast that was Railtrack.


The present Labour administration is responsible for Network Rail and its ‘fundamental changes to modus operandi’.


Yes they are both ‘government’; but of, at least slightly, different colour.


Anthony A Bonner


University of Teesside