Socialist Worker

Why won't John Prescott listen?

Issue No. 1686

Damning report into Southall train crash finds rail industry put 'convenience of operators before the interests of safety'

Why won't John Prescott listen?

By Hassan Mahamdallie

THE SOUTHALL rail disaster was caused by privatisation. That is the stark message that came out of last week's report of the inquiry into the September 1997 crash that killed seven passengers and injured 150. There are a number of disputes on the railways at the moment. Central to them all are safety and long hours.

Everyone should back the rail workers. While workers raise the question of safety the New Labour government allows rail companies to skimp on safety. The Southall victims were killed for profit. The inquiry chair, Professor John Uff QC, said that the fragmentation of the industry had produced a "confusing hotchpotch" of safety rules. Uff said this allowed the rail industry "to put the convenience of operators before the interests of safety".

The crash, which happened when a passenger express train hit a freight train, took place in "circumstances which were exacerbated by privatisation". Uff said that the break-up of the industry had led to demoralisation in the workforce. It had destroyed the tradition of "commitment and dedication of staff who spend a lifetime with British Rail". The report also said, "There are people in senior positions in the industry who have not been brought up on the railways."

That no Great Western Trains (GWT) executive has been jailed for murder is a disgrace. They got away last year with a paltry 1.5 million fine. The Southall report was released in the same week as the inquest was opened into last year's Paddington rail disaster in which 31 people were killed. Yet what was the response of deputy prime minister John Prescott, even before the Southall report was published? It was to go back on a promise given after Paddington to take safety responsibilities off rail infrastructure company Railtrack.

Prescott told parliament last week that responsibility for safety would be put in the hands of a Railtrack subsidiary called Railway Safety Limited.

Joan Petch, whose husband Tony died at Southall, told the press, "We all feel a deep sense of outrage and betrayal about what Mr Prescott said." Lawyer for the families Louise Christian said, "We believe this [Southall] report drives a coach and horses through the idea that safety should remain with Railtrack. "We think if Mr Prescott reads this report he must reconsider." In the aftermath of the Paddington crash 73 percent of voters said they wanted Railtrack to be taken back into public ownership. This message has been ignored by Prescott.

Last week Prescott delivered the victims another slap in the face when he announced he had given the go- ahead for installation of the inferior and cheaper Train Protection Warning System, instead of the superior and more costly Automatic Train Protection system.

Demonstration on Waterloo station

"SAFETY REPS under attack-we won't rest till Sarah's back!" That slogan rang out across the concourse at London's Waterloo station on Monday as rail workers and supporters protested in support of sacked train driver and health and safety rep Sarah Friday.

Over 100 protesters marched round the station. Sarah Friday was buoyed up by protest: "The support I've had at work has kept me going. My fellow workers know that my victimisation is also an attack on them." Sarah Friday, a driver for 11 years, was sacked in February by South West Trains on trumped up charges for "failing to advise her supervisor that she was going to the toilet".

There is no doubt rail bosses wanted RMT rail union activist Sarah out of the way because she was raising crucial issues of health and safety in the wake of the Southall and Paddington crashes. As a fellow driver told Socialist Worker, "We work seven hours without a break and Sarah was prepared to do something about that. What price do the rail companies put on safety? What is the price of a person's life? All this privatisation-these services have been stolen from us, and the government is doing nothing about it."

Sarah's RMT branch is gearing up for a fight to get her job back. On Tuesday 150 drivers and guards based at Waterloo were due to start a ballot for a series of 24 hour strikes. At a rally on Monday RMT officials, local trade unionists and Candy Udwin from UCLH gave Sarah pledges of their support.

Sarah's RMT branch secretary is Greg Tucker, who is a candidate for the London Socialist Alliance in the London elections. Greg told Socialist Worker, "This issue is about the union fighting to get safe conditions for drivers and the public. Sarah has been sacked because she's campaigned against long hours. On a wider level this is about the effects of privatisation. What happened to Sarah is what we can expect if the Underground is privatised. This is what is happening in our schools and hospitals."

  • Messages of support to Sarah Friday, c/o 3 Blades House, London SE11 5TW. Fax 020 7207 3781.

Don't blame driver

THE SOUTHALL inquiry report was wrong to put blame on train driver Larry Harrison. Harrison himself says, "I made a mistake, a human error, which has had terrible consequences." But the idea that Harrison is somehow equally to blame for Southall is nonsense. John Uff encouraged this coverage by repeating as truth an unsubstantiated "sighting" of Larry Harrison driving with his feet up.

If GWT had put safety before profits the crash would never have happened. The Southall report itself found that:

  • The in-cab Automatic Warning System (AWS) was isolated or switched off due to a fault. If it had been working it could have prevented the train passing signals at danger. AWS buzzes the driver when yellow or red signals are passed.
  • The train's previous driver twice reported the train's faulty AWS to the rail authorities. But the report to GWT control at Swindon had been "lost or overlooked". Engineers were not alerted and it was passed fit for service. The report concluded that the "fault lay in the system operated by GWT".
  • The engine at the back of the express train had a working AWS system, but GWT managers refused to turn the train around because it would have meant lost time.
  • The train also had Automatic Train Protection that would almost certainly have prevented the crash, but this was not switched on because Larry Harrison had not been put on the relevant refresher course. Harrison should never have been rostered by management to drive that train.

Rail unions had been complaining about the lack of a safety culture and the enormous pressure put on drivers ever since privatisation. Both Tory and Labour governments ignored these pleas. Southall was the result. Have the lessons been learnt? Ask the relatives of last year's Paddington disaster.

Back the guards

RAIL WORKERS put safety at the top of the agenda and rail bosses put it at the bottom. That is shown in the current nationwide dispute over the role of train guards. The rail companies want to turn guards into glorified "KitKat sellers" by stripping them of vital safety responsibilities. Under former safety rules guards were, alongside the driver, jointly responsible for emergency procedures.

But the rail companies changed the rulebook so that in an emergency the driver will have main responsibility for safety. As a guard told Socialist Worker, "It will make things more unsafe. We believe the reason is to reduce the number of guards to save the rail companies money. "London Underground have recently got rid of their guards. A couple of weeks ago a man was killed at Liverpool Street after he was left on a train that was being pulled out of service. Before, a guard would have walked the length of that tube train to make sure there were no passengers left on it."

When rail guards first balloted for strike action the rail operators scurried to the courts to have it declared illegal. They then pushed the changes through literally hours before the Paddington crash. Now the RMT union has reballoted and announced last week that guards on 16 out of the 23 companies had voted to take industrial action.

The 16 companies are Anglia, Cardiff, Central, Chiltern, First Great Western, First North Western, LTS, Merseyrail, Northern Spirit, ScotRail, Silverlink, South West, Thames, Virgin Cross Country, Virgin West Coast, Wales & West. There were no strike dates as Socialist Worker went to press. If the guards do strike most services will be unable to run.

  • A series of planned strikes at Connex rail company in South East England has been suspended after the company retreated on trying to tie strings to the pay offer with drivers' union ASLEF.

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Article information

Sat 4 Mar 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1686
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