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Stop these disasters

This article is over 23 years, 7 months old
Issue 1719

Southall, Paddington, Hatfield

Stop these disasters

Renationalise the rail now

FOUR KILLED. Thirty injured. Another 80 “walking wounded”. A train’s twisted and wrecked carriages strewn across the track. Yet another fatal crash on Britain’s privatised railways. How many more must there be before the government acts to bring the railways back into public ownership and to invest properly in safety? After Tuesday’s Hatfield crash Southall train disaster survivor Carol Bell said, “I feel very angry. I don’t believe this is happening again.” The crash comes just after the first anniversary of the 1999 crash in Ladbroke Grove, Paddington, that killed 31 people.

Survivors from that crash have been begging the New Labour government to force the privatised railways to put people’s lives before shareholder dividends. Ladbroke Grove survivor Pam Warren told the press just two weeks ago, “After 12 months there has been no constructive change to railway safety. Every morning I wake up expecting another crash. It is not a question of if an accident like Ladbroke Grove will happen again, but when.”

Has cost cutting again put profits before safety, resulting in this week’s disaster? Transport police quickly floated the idea of “terrorism” without any evidence. The press were speculating that the GNER train derailed after hitting an object on the line. But why would only the middle coaches derail?

Socialist Worker heard on Tuesday from rail insiders that a massive signalling shutdown could be to blame. Railtrack received two pieces of information just before the train left the track.

The first was a warning of a control system failure, which triggered all the signals on the track to go red. This can have the effect of switching the points that guide the train on the rails. If that happened the train, travelling at speed, would be thrown off the tracks. The second was a report from the GNER driver that he had hit something. This “big bang”, one that the driver and passengers heard, could have been the sound of the train hitting the points. If the cause of the Hatfield crash was a signal failure, fundamental questions need to be asked.

What was the state of the signalling? When had it last been renewed? What systems could or should have been in place to stop a train being thrown off the tracks in the case of a signal shutdown? GNER must be asked when the train was last properly checked. Experts were comparing the Hatfield crash to one that happened in 1998 on the same track at Sandy, Bedfordshire, when a high speed train also came off its tracks.

This was caused by a cracked wheel. The company responsible was fined just 175,000. News also broke on Tuesday of another rail “accident”. At 9.20am on Tuesday a train smashed into a stalled bus at the level crossing near Staines.

People will be right to be sceptical of any assurances from Railtrack over safety. This is the firm that knew the signal that caused the Ladbroke Grove crash was difficult to see and did nothing.

This is the firm that had the cheek to award its top executives hundreds of thousands of pounds in bonus payouts after Ladbroke Grove. This is the firm that has not brought down the number of serious signalling incidents since Ladbroke Grove.

This is the firm still on course for 300 million of profits this year. After the Ladbroke Grove crash a poll showed that 73 percent of people wanted the railways to be renationalised immediately. At the time deputy prime minister John Prescott said “money would be no object” to get rail safety.

Prescott then betrayed us all by giving the go ahead to a cheap train safety system and handing back safety responsibility to Railtrack. The government refuses to put public safety before private greed and take the railways back into public ownership. New Labour is committed to privatisation and the free market.

This is typified by GNER. It is owned by US multinational Sea Containers, which operates out of tax haven Bermuda. It boasts of how it shovels millions into the pockets of its shareholders. Commuters and the rail unions should unite now to take action to force the government to act to stop the mounting carnage on Britain’s railways.

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