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Safety lost in the maze of contracts

This article is over 17 years, 10 months old
MORE DEATHS and disasters are just waiting to happen on our railways. That's the only conclusion you can draw from a secret industry memo seen by KEVIN OVENDEN
Issue 1892

THE MEMO is from inside Carillion-the rail contractor which employed four track workers killed by a runaway wagon in Cumbria last month. It identifies a shocking catalogue of engineering failures on the West Coast Main Line, where the men were working. It shows that despite the best efforts of rail staff the subcontracting culture across the industry has led to:

  • Electricity substations blowing up.

  • Contractors cutting through high-voltage cables.

  • Tunnels brought close to collapse.

  • A track safety system left to gather dust for years.

    And the document says that ‘if anything things have got worse’ since the government replaced Railtrack with Network Rail as the company responsible for rail infrastructure.

    Details emerging last week of the Cumbria tragedy bore that conclusion out. Carillion was using a plethora of subcontractors. Police last week arrested and released on bail two employees of one of the subcontractors, Mac Machinery. Mac Machinery had hired the 17-ton wagon that ran loose and then hit and killed the track workers from another company, Hewden plant hire.

    Hewden had been banned from operating rail vehicles itself last year after not keeping central records about the state of its equipment. In 1999 it was fined £40,000 with £4,000 costs for its part in an accident which led to construction worker Paul Richardson losing a leg. A third company, McGinley, provided the agency worker who was acting as a crane operator in Cumbria last month.

    McGinley had been slammed in an inquest verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ of Michael Mungovan, a 22 year old student who was sent by the agency to work on the railway with inadequate training. He ended up in the path of a 50 mile an hour oncoming train near Vauxhall, south London, in October 2000.

    The leaked Carillion document shows such a spider’s web of subcontractors (with each blaming the other when things go wrong) remains typical on the railways. Since privatisation, records of detailed drawings of track and infrastructure on the West Coast Main Line have ‘become fewer and fewer’. The ‘staff member responsible for keeping drawings in order’ was laid off and ‘records lost’.

    As a result, ‘Several incidents have occurred where contractors have short-circuited high and low voltage cables because they were unaware of positions of cables.’ In one, a contractor drove a rod into a national electricity grid cable. All the experienced staff responsible for bridge and tunnel maintenance were laid off.

    So ‘regular bridge and tunnel maintenance was halted entirely’. That dramatically shortened the life expectancy of those structures, leading to them having to be replaced rather than repaired. When contractors were eventually appointed they would ‘arrive with no experienced skilled labour’.

    There were ‘reports of experienced skilled railway staff happening to witness work being carried out’ and stepping in ‘to stop the work and teach contractors before collapse of the tunnel was risked’. The document goes on to outline how it is that of the 11 electricity rail substations ‘between Euston and Watford, two remain off line and two remain at risk of predictable failure’.

    At the Bushey substation, the workers who used to reroof it were ‘almost entirely laid off’. Subcontractors could not deal with working near high-voltage cables. The result was that rain ended up seeping through the roof, causing an explosion in the substation that ‘could apparently be seen from the other side of Watford’.

    Engineers and infrastructure workers have worked within safety regulations. But they have consistently found their efforts undermined by the sacking of permanent staff with the required skills and by the chaos of passing on work to some of the hundreds of subcontractors on the railway.

    Yet the police investigation into the Cumbria tragedy is focused on blaming individual workers-rather than the failures of the system and the company directors who profit from it.

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