PUNCTUALITY and on-time performance on Britain’s rail network were sacrificed on the altar of safety on October 19, when Railtrack imposed 81 emergency speed restrictions on main lines. It followed the derailment at Hatfield of Great North Eastern Railway’s 12.10 inter-city service from London to Leeds two days earlier. The fourth vehicle and all but two of the rest left the track at around 175 km/h. Three cars overturned, including the dining car, whose roof was ripped off after it struck a catenary mast; four people died in this vehicle. In a testimony to the Mk IV coach design, the most serious injuries among other passengers were a fractured spine and broken leg. The cause appears to be a broken rail resulting from gauge corner cracking.

The accident unleashed a predictable media outcry, in the course of which Railtrack Chief Executive Gerald Corbett tendered his resignation. His offer was rejected at a specially-convened board meeting on October 18, amid expressions of support from within and without the industry. Transport Minister Lord Macdonald called for Railtrack ’to maintain its leadership and its coherence at the executive level’. Railtrack at once took the blame for the accident, saying that the offending rail, which was only five years old, ’was due to be replaced in November. The replacement should have been in place sooner and this was Railtrack’s responsibility.’

Broken rails on Railtrack’s 32000 track-km network have been a cause for much concern in recent years. The number of breaks per million train-miles has been on a rising trend since 1989 (right), with the index climbing rapidly in 1998-99 to 2·92. We commented in RG 6.99 p346 on the alarming increase in rail breaks in late 1998 and early 1999. The Health & Safety Executive at once served a Prohibition Order on Railtrack. Rail Regulator Tom Winsor weighed in during August last year, telling Railtrack that the rise in rail breaks was ’clear evidence of failing asset management’. A year later, he attacked Railtrack again, claiming that ’an excessive level of broken rails’ was prima facie evidence of a licence breach.

Given that until last month there had been only two deaths attributable to derailments caused by broken rails since 49 died at Hither Green in 1967, Railtrack’s decision to impose severe speed restrictions follows the revelation that gauge corner cracking has been identified in rails of various steels and ages, and even in rail that has been in service for less than 12 months. The immediate effect will be serious disruption to all services, driving hard-won customers back to the roads, where on average more than twice as many people are killed each day as died at Hatfield.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the derailment may follow from a meeting called on October 19 that gathered the chief executives of Train Operating Companies and contractors at Railtrack headquarters. Corbett said afterwards that ’the railway was ripped apart at privatisation and the structure that was put in place ... was not a structure designed to optimise safety, optimise investment or, indeed cope with the huge increase in the number of passengers the railway has seen.’

Quite what changes may ensue to the complex matrix that now forms Britain’s railway are not known. But the objective must be to simplify the structure so that change is more easily managed. A huge web of legally binding relationships between a plethora of different companies with different agendas is not, as Virgin Chief Executive Chris Green suggests on p723, a formula for getting things done quickly and effectively. Nor has it encouraged attention to research, which could conceivably produce effective answers to problems such as gauge corner cracking.