THE political jungle is inhabited by a species of parrot that squawks ’safety is paramount’ at the slightest hint of rail safety being compromised. The bird was unaccountably silent in September, when an unexpected relaxation of employment rules meant train drivers in charge of freight trains carrying dangerous chemicals, inflammable goods, or explosives no longer had to conform to European legislation on hours. They can work for 10 h a day, seven days a week, to ensure goods are delivered on time at acceptable cost.

Not true? Well, no it isn’t actually. But substitute ’lorry drivers’ for ’train drivers’ and ’lorries’ for ’freight trains’, and it is. The British government’s decision to relax safety regulations for road hauliers for one month from September 13 emerged on the same day that the Southall and Ladbroke Grove Joint Enquiry into Train Protection Systems began in London - one of four high level enquiries into railway safety spawned by the Southall and Ladbroke Grove collisions. We wonder just when the outcry would have died down had it been discovered that a train operating company had relaxed the rules on drivers’ hours in a similar way.

As it was, The Independent newspaper reported the government’s disgusting hypocrisy on September 19, pointing out that one in five deaths on Britain’s roads is due to driver fatigue, ’with an estimated 1000 serious injuries and more than 100 deaths a year caused by lorry drivers falling asleep’. On September 21 reports suggested that ’oil distributors are making extensive use of the hours concession’.

The intention, of course, was to find a rapid way to end the fuel shortage that threatened to bring Britain to a standstill in mid-September. Not that Britain was alone. The trouble had begun in France, with lorry drivers and farmers blockading oil refineries in protest at the cost of fuel - driven up by high taxation and the price of crude oil topping US$30 a barrel. Copycat actions elsewhere quickly forced the issue up the European agenda, and transport ministers met in Luxembourg on September 20. It was not exactly a harmonious meeting, as there was clearly disagreement between the French - who had already caved in to the protesters’ demands - and others such as the Germans who were prepared to stick to a commitment for an environment tax on fuel. The result was a wishy-washy statement noting that ’there was a broad consensus that the solution does not lie in the reduction of carbon taxes’.

The increasing cost of oil has had several consequences. In the USA, the price of fuel has risen in the last year from 65 cents a gallon to more than $1, leading Union Pacific to increase its rates by 3% from the start of this month. It looks unlikely that there will be a 1970s-style economic recession, but the problems in Europe highlighted the vulnerability of industry to disruption when it relies on just-in-time deliveries. On the positive side, city centre streets temporarily became safer places with cleaner air. In Britain, a few trains were cancelled because of fuel shortages, but an overnight boom in rail travel saw an estimated increase in traffic of around 20%. But most of this will return to road unless rail companies are really able to demonstrate service quality that will convince car drivers to stick with the train.

The Community of European Railways recognised that ’political decisions will be taken to face emergency situations’, but warned that ’no permanent policy to reduce taxation of energy can be acceptable if the targets agreed in the Kyoto Protocol to reduce the greenhouse effect are to be met’. It advocated ’a gradual increase of fuel taxes so as to encourage changes in technology and in behaviour by transport users’.

Perhaps most disturbing has been the failure of the ’crisis’ to stimulate a serious debate about transport and the environment, and society’s enormous reliance on private cars. Instead, the discussion was almost entirely about the short-term political consequences. It was a bitter irony that attempts to promote public transport during the week of September 18-22, culminating in a car-free day in numerous cities on September 22, were entirely overshadowed.

Whatever political chicanery is conjured up in the next few weeks, the issues of fuel prices, taxation and the environment will not go away. There is an opportunity here for the railways, but it will be lost if they are ill-prepared.