Socialist Worker

Safety the victim in contract chaos

Issue No. 1800

RAIL PRIVATISATION has led to a catastrophic collapse in safety standards. Nowhere is this clearer than in the maintenance of the infrastructure-track, signalling, tunnels, bridges, and so on. There were wholesale sackings of experienced rail workers in the run-up to privatisation in 1996.

Between 1992 and 1997 the number of people working on the railways fell from 159,000 to 92,000, while the number of trains increased. The number of permanently employed infrastructure workers fell from 31,000 to between 15,000 and 19,000. Now 80 percent of Railtrack's infrastructure work goes to contractors who employ just 18,000 permanent workers. These companies subcontract work to hundreds of smaller firms which then hire casual labour.

There are about 2,000 firms working on the railways and 140 agencies supplying casual labour. Subcontractors often employ casual workers in pubs. Stories abound about how easy it is to 'buy' the safety certificate everyone working on the track is meant to have.

Even then Railtrack's figures show up to one in 20 workers lack a certificate. One Jarvis worker said last weekend, 'I've been on the line since the Hatfield crash, in charge of a gang renewing the track and then checking the work, but I don't have the required training or competency certificate.' A judge at Liverpool Crown Court slammed Jarvis's 'apparent slackness' and use of untrained workers two years ago.

Jarvis took over from fellow contractor Balfour Beatty at Potters Bar. Balfour Beatty's lawyers are fending off accusations over casualisation at an inquest which opened in south London last week. Michael Mungovan, a 22 year old student, was killed by a train while doing casual work for the firm in October 2000. He was hired through a recruitment agency, and his friends say he received only nine hours training. Balfour Beatty claims he had at least 22.

In any case, he moved in the wrong direction when a colleague signalled a train was approaching. His mother says, 'As far as I'm concerned my son was murdered. Why was he working near trains which were running past at nearly 60 miles an hour, and why was there no proper supervision?'

Last June an independent whistleblower's scheme called CIRAS said: 'The main concern is that agency staff frequently turn up for work with no prior training. This may result in an accident.'

Jarvis gets paid extra for completing maintenance work ahead of schedule under its £50 million contract on the Potters Bar line. Its pre-tax profits doubled in the six months after it got that contract in April last year. Jarvis's rail arm made £24.5 million last year.

Record of shame

JARVIS WAS given the contract to maintain and renew the track at Potters Bar even though it failed to replace the piece of track five miles away which caused the Hatfield crash.

The company haggled with Railtrack for the six months leading up to that crash over replacing a piece of rail both companies knew was dangerously cracked. That has not stopped Jarvis getting other maintenance contracts and, incredibly, it is now poised to take over part of London's tube.

Jarvis is part of the Tube Lines consortium set to take over the infrastructure of the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines under New Labour's PPP tube privatisation scheme.

Deadline missed

THE CULLEN inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove crash concluded, 'It is clear the industry has been unable properly to manage the work of its contractors.' It recommended 'steps to reduce the number of subcontractors'and set a deadline of six months. Railtrack has failed to meet that target two months after the deadline has passed.

Media sabotage the truth

PAPERS AT the weekend, most notably the Observer, reported that 'sabotage' could have caused the Potters Bar crash. They had no evidence of that, and by Tuesday the Health and Safety Executive had effectively ruled it out.

Then the papers repeated the claim that this was a 'one-off' accident. This is the timetable of evasion that followed the Hatfield crash in October 2000. On the day of that crash there were claims of sabotage or vandalism from unnamed sources.

Then, when the track was found to be at fault, we were told it was a 'unique or very rare occurrence'. Within days Railtrack had to close the bulk of the network to begin replacing hundreds of miles of track.

Were warnings ignored?

'ALL THIS stuff about Potters Bar being a one-off is wrong,' says a maintenance worker who knows of two other incidents involving similar points. 'It has happened before, and just because it has not resulted in a tragic crash does not mean it is not happening.' Other rail workers contacted by Socialist Worker also say that nuts and bolts have come off before.

'Of course it happens,' says one. 'That is what happens with wear and tear, especially with underinvestment. Lack of skilled staff means that inspections do not take place anything like as often as they should.'

Passengers warned Railtrack that they thought there were problems on the line through Potters Bar. Kevin O'Neill has travelled that route through Potters Bar for 17 years. He wrote to the Health and Safety Executive on 27 March complaining that his journey between King's Cross and Peterborough had become a 'white knuckle ride'. One particularly nasty jolt led an engineer with the GNER rail company he was travelling with to warn:

'If that is not a derailment waiting to happen then I don't know what is.' Three weeks after Kevin O'Neill's warning Railtrack phoned to ask whether he could pinpoint where the problem was as the company 'did not have manpower or facilities to do a full check of the 90 miles of track'.

Rail experts have told contractors repeatedly that there could be various problems with bolts on rails. Alan Knight, an Oxford University engineering lecturer, carried out secret tests in 1997 on bolts in the London area that were shearing when trains switched tracks.

He carried out the study for Railtrack contractor Balfour Beatty, which circulated the findings to rail bosses. An experienced rail engineer says his company has had two incidents in the last six months where detached nuts had been found during maintenance work. He said there were problems with the points at the Severn Tunnel six months ago and at Bristol Parkway three months ago.

He put the problem down to the lack of experienced workers, leaving untrained casuals who 'haven't a clue about the tension needed. 'Some nuts have been screwed on too loosely, others far too tightly. Where they have been overtightened there is a tendency to create metal fatigue on the thread and for nuts to become detached.'

They don't have a clue

THE FRAGMENTATION caused by privatisation means Railtrack could not say the day after the crash which contractor it had employed to maintain the track at Potters Bar.

Then on Sunday bosses of Railtrack and of the contractor, Jarvis, could not even agree when the points at Potters Bar were installed. Railtrack said they were put in last September. Jarvis said they were in place when it took over the contract from Balfour Beatty in April of last year.

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Article information

Sat 18 May 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1800
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