IT’S been a controversial seven days for rail safety. But in the war ofwords the first casualty, argues Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, hasbeen the truth. Here he writes exclusively for Reading Evening Post readers.
I’ve been accused of a lot of things in my time as a politician, but onething I’ve never been accused of is ducking an argument. But that’s not thereason why the coverage of my decisions last week on rail safety on the TV,radio and in the newspapers is so irritating.
I’m a professional politician and I’ll take criticism like I always have -on the chin.
What’s irritating is that the most important people in the whole debate onrail safety – the families of the victims and the survivors of the crashesat Southall and Paddington – are being misled by the media reporting ofcomplex issues they don’t or won’t understand.People like Alan Macro, who wrote so movingly in the Reading Evening Post onThursday.
Maybe not deliberately, maybe not wilfully. But the effect is the same. Theyhave been left with the impression that this Government – and me personally- have caved in to the vested interests of the rail industry.
I’ve campaigned all my life for transport safety. I forced British Rail tofit electronic door locks which helps to save 12 lives a year.That’s why I am meeting representatives of the families of the victims and their MPs today to hear their concerns, to listen to what they have to say and to tell them thattheir worries are my worries.
When I read the reports from Sir David Davies, my department and the Healthand Safety Executive at the weekend, I was faced with two choices.Either I could do nothing and wait a few years for the perfect technology tobe developed and the perfect laws to be passed though Parliament, or untilthe Lord Cullen report. Or I could take interim, practical steps now which – while not perfect – would do something to protect people’s lives. While not the final answerthey will do a great deal to improve rail safety and cut collisions due totrains passing red signals by over 70 per cent.Not in 10 years, not after consultation, not when all the companies agree, but today.
The Train Protection Warning System will be installed on all trains over thenext three years with high-speed lines getting the additional AutomaticTrain Protection system as they are upgraded.
So that’s what I decided. Better to have a system in place right now than no system at all.Because I’m under no illusions. Leaving any responsibility for safety witheven a subsidiary of Railtrack was one of the hardest decisions I’ve everhad to take. But that’s also why I insisted on some pretty rigoroussafeguards.
As safety experts recommended, Railtrack has been stripped of its prime roleof deciding whether train companies are safe to operate.That conflict of interest has been removed.
Second, Railtrack will have no day-to-day control over the Safety andStandards Directorate which will become a freestanding safety company.There will be a fire wall between the new company, Rail Safety Limited, andRailtrack.
Commercial influences will play no part in their decisions as they will havea separate board and chairman from Railtrack. It will have separate financesfrom Railtrack. It will have a separate chief executive from Railtrack.Any attempt by Railtrack to exert pressure on the new company will be aserious breach of their licence and could incur the wrath of the the railregulator.
And it should be remembered that this is not necessarily the finalarrangement.
If Lord Cullen, who is currently holding a comprehensive inquiry into railsafety, recommends better arrangements, things will change again. That willbe the next step forward.
The reason I have chosen to do things this way is that I have been advisednot to pre-empt Lord Cullen’s inquiry. I have to take that advice on facevalue.
But that doesn’t mean I have done nothing on rail safety in the lasttwo-and-a-half years.
Since coming into office I have made safety the number one priority for therail industry, I’ve taken steps to improve safety training for drivers,scrap slam-door trains and introduce effective train protection technology.
By the end of 2003, all trains will be fitted with the Train ProtectionWarning System.
We’ve established the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, carried out astringent safety review and are looking to tighten up the law on corporatemanslaughter.
The measures I announced last week are a part of this long process.I will always put safety above every other consideration. That’s why I cameinto politics. That is my pledge to you. That is my pledge to the Britishpeople. And, more importantly, that is my pledge to the families devastatedby these rail tragedies.
Whether it’s the victims of Paddington, Southall, the Gaul, the Marchionessor any of the tragedies that have blighted our transport history I havealways placed the highest emphasis on trying to do the right thing by thefamilies they left behind.
And those families and I share a common goal – that these tragedies willnever be repeated.
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