Safety and privatisation on the railways

Until the privatisation of the railways, maintenance of the track (Permanent Way) and Signalling and Telecommunications (S&T) were split into the old British Rail regional departments, north west, Wales, south east etc. Each was headed by a regional engineer.

When the railways were privatised, Railtrack put maintenance out to tender. This led to each region being awarded to one major contractor to maintain Ministry of Transport standards for five years. They then had a monopoly on all work in ‘their’ region. Each region had one major contractor, paid by Railtrack, to maintain existing equipment and infrastructure; these contractors took over existing experienced and qualified staff directly from BR. They carried on the maintenance of the railway system in the same way, except for one vital principle; their priority was profit!

The contractors for each region reported to Railtrack everything that needed repairing or renewing due to age. The new work reported was like an open chequebook, as under the privatisation scheme billions of pounds had been made available in government subsidies to Railtrack to improve the under-invested rail network. With the massive amount of money available the major contractors in each region saw opportunities to make mega profits. They then began sub-contracting growing levels of work out to smaller railway maintenance companies. The amount of sub-contracted work meant these smaller companies needed more experienced qualified railway staff to do the work and the only place to quickly get it was from the major contractors themselves. Staff left in their hundreds for the higher pay offered by sub-contractors leaving the major contractors struggling to keep to the basic maintenance schedules of their original

Major profits are made in track renewal not maintenance, where any delays caused by track or signal faults could incur massive fines. In a busy junction area fines could be hundreds of thousands for severe delays. Railtrack, the Ministry of Transport and the major contractors had to find a solution to the problem of meeting the basic maintenance schedules. They did, by lowering maintenance standards and cutting the frequency of vital safety tests, some went from monthly to quarterly, others from yearly to two or five yearly!

This erosion of safety standards is the underlying cause of accidents such as Hatfield and Potters Bar. When faults are found on the railways they are not repaired immediately but put on hold until the cheapest time slot can be found to do the job. If the fault is on a busy junction the job will usually be planned for the night, this may take weeks after the fault was found, as the scheduling requires different rail companies haggling and agreeing over train diversion costs.

Under the old BR system faults were rectified straight away or safety restrictions immediately enacted. Under privatisation safety is secondary to profit. Unless the railway network is taken back into public ownership a new Hatfield or Potters Bar is waiting down the line.

Kevin Clarke

FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003


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