Railway ethics

John Uff’s article ‘Ethics are a matter of principle’ (Viewpoint, 4 June) discussed SEP (Statement of Ethical Principles) so it is appropriate that the acronym can also stand for Safe Engineering Practice (Pressure Equipment Directive), both SEPs being complementary.

A good example of ethics would be if the railway industry could extend its traditional excellent failsafe systems (signalling, interlocking,braking systems etc) to protect the public from harm from railway points in the following ways.

First, design points to be failsafe and nuts that do not come loose.

Second, introduce positive reporting of maintenance checks rather than relying on ‘no news is good news’ (remember the Zeebrugge disaster).

Third, introduce immediate remedial changes to similar equipment following a mishap (remember Potters Bar).

So far so good. Now the problems start, exactly as feared in Mr Uff’s article. The first ‘scapegoat’ is the arrested Railtrack employee. There are enormous barriers to railway ethics. They include lack of openness due to fear of sanctions (almost encouraged in the article), but mainly they include fear of litigation. It is this and the exorbitant financial penalties that are wreaking havoc with virtually all activities where people actually do things.

Railway finances are shared. engineers share available finance with the British Transport Police, who may imprison them; with Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate (HMRI), which may also bring about imprisonment (incidentally isn’t that body ultimately responsible for rail safety?); the new Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB ) and, of course, the vast bureaucracy of liaising among all the profit-conscious rail companies — along with their legal teams — that was created by privatisation.

P Field

St Albans, Herts