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From The Socialist newspaper, 1 March 2007

Cumbria rail crash

Safety not profit

THE FAULT with a set of points that caused last week's train derailment in Cumbria, in which one person died, was almost identical to the one that caused the Potters Bar rail disaster in 2002.

Jared Wood

After Potters Bar, Jarvis Construction, who were contracted to maintain the track in the affected area, claimed the points were 'sabotaged'. But an inquiry showed the derailment was caused because the points had not been maintained. In Cumbria last week, visual inspection of the failed points had not been carried out and on 24 February, the stretcher bars failed causing a London-Glasgow Virgin train to derail.

Following Potters Bar, extensive research on railway points showed that vibration can cause the nuts securing stretcher bars to come off. Loose nuts and bolts were found by the trackside at the site of last week's derailment and the interim report into the incident says there's no evidence these nuts were wrenched off, in other words they have worked loose.

Such poor maintenance is a symptom of privatisation. To reduce costs and make the railway more profitable visual inspections were cut back from several times a week to once a week. Even these weekly checks are not always carried out.

The Cumbria interim report says a scheduled inspection was not carried out the previous Sunday. Assuming the previous weekly inspection was done on 11 February it was almost two weeks since the points had been visually inspected. And this on a section of track with a 95mph line speed.

Network Rail is a not-for-profit company that replaced the profit-making company, Railtrack, which was totally discredited after Potters Bar. When the government refused yet more public money to bail out Railtrack shareholders the firm went bust.

However, Network Rail, while re-investing any profit into the network, still operates as a private company in a privatised rail system and it subcontracts vital track maintenance work to profit-making firms. The drive to maximise the rail operating companies' and infrastructure sub-contractors' profits means profit is put before safety and passenger service.

Virgin Trains boss Richard Branson said Network Rail should listen to the train operating companies about what needs to be done. But would Branson pay a higher track access charge in order to return to more regular track inspections?

A privatised rail system means higher fares and a fragmented infrastructure where the expertise and experience of loyal staff is tossed away in the name of misconceived efficiency.

Prosecutions could follow the Transport Police's Cumbria investigation. Those charged should (but of course won't) include the transport ministers who carried through privatisation and failed to act after previous disasters as well as rail industry directors who admit control when their bonuses are calculated but claim no direct responsibility when safety failures come to court.

The entire rail network must be returned to public ownership with train operations and infrastructure back in one unified organisation, owned by the public, run democratically by workers and passengers and run as a public service instead of an excuse for subsidising big business.

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In The Socialist 1 March 2007:

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Socialist Party news and analysis

Cumbria rail crash: Safety not profit

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