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Prescott phones in an exclusive

Telephone calls from readers can lead to P1 exclusives – especially if that reader is the Deputy Prime Minister.

Andy Murrill, Editor of the Reading Evening Post, answered his telephone to find John Prescott on the other end.

The result was an exclusive P1 splash for the title yesterday in which Mr Prescott hit back at critics of his rail safety measures, and complained about Wednesday’s Opinion column in the newspaper. He also revealed that he would meet Southall or Paddington crash victims or their relatives on Monday to explain his decisions.

Mr Prescott said he was infuriated by the Post’s column which said his new policies on safety were a fudge and “not good enough” after he announced that a subsidiary company of Railtrack is to be set up to take responsibility for safety.

Mr Prescott told Andy Murrill: “I cannot accept this is a fudge. I have had to run like hell to keep up on this”.

In the aftermath of Paddington, it was widely reported that an independent organisation would be brought in because Railtrack was dogged by a conflict of interest between safety and profit.

Instead, Mr Prescott announced that the subsidiary company would take on the safety role with an independent chairman, but it would still come under the Railtrack umbrella.

Mr Prescott also ordered train companies to submit their safety measures to the Health and Safety Executive instead of Railtrack.

Critics – including the rail unions and Reading West MP Martin Salter – rounded on the Deputy Prime Minister for reneging on his earlier indications that Railtrack would be forced to totally relinquish responsibility for safety.

In his call to the Post, Mr Prescott said he had not broken promises and that information had been “leaked and misinterpreted”.

Making train companies report to the HSE did amount to stripping Railtrack of its safety role, he said.

Earlier reports in the week that he had done a U-turn were a misinterpretation.

He said: “I got caught on interpretation of leaks.”

He said to go further would prejudice Lord Cullen’s investigation into the Paddington disaster but that he had wanted to act quickly. He also said to introduce the ATP safety system would not have been possible before the end of the decade.

“I could have done nothing and waited until after Cullen reports. But it wouldn’t have been right to do nothing before Cullen reported,” said Mr Prescott.

Mr Prescott said he had read the comments in Wednesday’s Post of Paddingtonsurvivor Keith Stiles, from Tilehurst, and that he wanted to show victims and relativesthat he was determined to take action.

He said his previous decisions to hold full inquiries into the Marchioness, Gaul and Derbyshire boat tragedies showed how much he wanted to act for relatives.

He said: “I wanted to lift consciousness before Cullen reports. I owe it to the relatives to show I’m still going.”

Southall or Paddington crash victims or their relatives have been invited to meet him on Monday along with MPs Jane Griffiths and Martin Salter.

Andy Murrill said: “It’s not every day that the Deputy Prime Minister personally phones a regional newspaper and this shows rail safety is clearly an issue close to his heart.

“He took great exception to a comment in the Opinion that he likes his carsand told me ‘I travel by train more in a month than you do in a year’.

“He was clearly anxious to let the people of Reading know that he was doing as much as he could as quickly as possible, without prejudicing the Cullen inquiry which starts next month.

“He does not want to release Railtrack from its duty to provide a safe rail network but believes his recommendations will transfer responsibility for train safety to the HSE.

“He talked a lot about the relatives of victims and wants them to know hehas not taken his eye off the ball.”

The Post plans to follow up its scoop with more from Mr Prescott in Monday’s edition.

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