Sordid profiteering behind the Paddington Rail Disaster
On Tuesday 5 October, the 6.03 a.m. Cheltenham Flyer (Intercity express train) collided with the 8.06 a.m. Thames commuter service to Bedwyn at 8.11 a.m. leaving behind a raging inferno in which nearly 40 people were incinerated and dozens more injured. Vic Coleman, Chief Inspector of Railways, who delivered on Friday 8 October his interim report on the crash between the London-bound express and the commuter train that crossed its path not far from Paddington Railway Station, says that the disaster could have been avoided by a proper warning system, and that Railtrack knew more about the trains jumping red lights that it has admitted so far.
Railtrack fully aware of the dangers
There is a multiplicity of evidence to the effect that Railtrack were fully aware, and apprised, of the dangerous state of affairs on this line but nevertheless took no action to avert disaster. Only last month (September 1999), the Heath and Safety Executive (HSE) called upon rail chiefs to take 22 specific actions to reduce the increasing incidence of trains jumping red lights. Railtrack was twice warned before the Paddington disaster to improve signal 109, which needed an extra light at cab height to make it easily visible to drivers. Since April of this year it needed 6 meetings for this minor change, which would have involved little effort and expense to implement, to be approved.
The HSE, after a whole year’s investigation into the handling by railway companies of the risks involved in trains passing red lights, revealed
in the way such dangers were tackled. One of the rail companies, the Great Western, complained last year after a near head-on collision. Prompted by the order that Railtrack received from the regulator that it must improve its performance or face a hefty fine, in August this year, the Chief Inspector of Railways, Vic Coleman, took the unusual step of issuing a Warning to Railtrack to take proper safety measures, adding that
“targets must not be met at the expense of safety.”
He went on to ask Railtrack for
“assurances that there will be no cutting of corners with respect to safety.”
An internal analysis by the rail inspectorate of the worst 22 signals for Spads (Signals Passed at Danger) revealed that at least seven of these were life-threatening, with trains being only moments, or yards, away from a collision. A published report, which criticised Railtrack and the operating companies for their failure to take sufficient remedial steps warned, as if with an eye to the Paddington smash,
“there is a possibility that such a Spad incident may lead to an incident with serious consequences.”
of 10 October, in its leading article, cited the following words of the deputy chief inspector of railways namely: “
The most dangerous incidents, with potentially disastrous consequences, are when a train runs past the junction and gets on to a line being used by another train
.” It then goes on to comment:
“His words were tragically borne out on September 3. Rail bosses cannot claim they were not warned. The dangers were all too apparent.”
Railtrack documents list the high-risk blackspots where the danger is considered higher than it was on the London-bound approach to Paddington! Yet it chose to keep the travelling public in the dark.
Driven by a culture of maximisation of profits, Railtrack and the train operators have ignored safety to the extent of cutting corners on the training of drivers and abandoning the time-honoured, and sound, practice of ensuring that new and inexperienced drivers were not in put in charge of trains on their own, but were always accompanied by a colleague with greater driving experience. Yet the late Mr Hodder, the driver of the commuter train, who drove through Signal 109 into the path of the speeding express, was precisely such an inexperienced driver.
“You wouldn’t put a pilot straight out of British Airways training school into the pilot’s seat on a Boeing 747 on his own,”
observed Roger Ford, technical editor of
In addition, there is the matter of the track layout, which was re-designed in 1993 to make for extra capacity for the Heathrow Express. The stretch leading out of Paddington is very complex, with 774 trains working their way through it each day. Here is the
10 October description of the complexity of track layout at Paddington:
“From 10 platforms tracks converge into six ‘bi-directional’ lines, each controlled by signals designed to be seen by trains coming in either direction. Further out, the lines converge into four one-way lines. When Hodder missed the red signal, he was effectively forced along the track and onto a one-way street going the wrong way.
One option put forward to tackle the problems with signal 109 was to turn two of the six lines into one-way routes – limiting the danger of meeting something coming the other way. However, this was rejected by Railtrack on the grounds that it was ‘unworkable’. In other words, to do so would limit the number of trains it could get in and out of Paddington.”
Sunday Times, “Railtrack’s whole raison d’être is to sell train paths, so the more it can pack in, the more money it makes.”
In other words, the sordid monetary interests of Railtrack yet again played their part in the ghastly carnage at Paddington on 5 October.
Notwithstanding the above catalogue of criminal negligence – all in the interests of maximum profit – Railtrack, with a sick sense of humour, claims
“a strong safety record”
Previous recommendations ignored
This is not the first major train smash resulting in mass slaughter. In 1988, the Clapham rail crash left 35 dead in its wake. In 1997 the Southall train disaster resulted in 7 deaths and 150 people injured. Now the Paddington carnage. After the Clapham crash, Anthony Hidden, Q.C., who headed an inquiry into that tragedy, in his report recommended that the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) safety system be introduced and completed by 1996 at a cost of £380 million. Eleven years have passed since then, and the recommendation has yet to be implemented. The present cost of putting this system in place is £2 billion.
The technology for making our trains safe has been endorsed by no less than eight public inquiries, with each inquiry’s recommendations being honoured in the breach rather than the observance by railway managers and Ministers alike. An internal report of the Department of Transport has it that the introduction of ATP would have prevented 61 incidents in the 30 years to 1994, during which time 80 people were killed and 2,468 injured in those incidents.
“What happened at signal 109,” correctly says the leading article in the
Sunday Times, “did not come out of the blue. Signalling problems have led to calls for failsafe systems since the report into the 1988 Clapham crash made the case for the automatic train protection (ATP) system. Cost and different political priorities ruled that out at the time.” (ibid.)
The cost and political considerations to which the
alludes so obscurely – and almost in passing – were none other than the interests of British monopoly capitalism, which was demanding the privatisation of British Rail, with which demand the subservient British government was determined to comply. In the run-up to the auction of British Rail at bargain-basement prices, the cost of modern train protection
“weighed heavily on those with an interest in the flotation of Railtrack and the train operating companies.”
Had British Rail been required to implement the introduction of ATP, this requirement, with the huge costs involved, would have to have been included in the flotation prospectus, making British unattractive to the vultures who were soon to descend upon the rail system consequent upon its privatisation.
So, according to a report in the
of 10 October, in a
“crude internal cost benefit assessment, rail managers had estimated the value of each human life at between £2.7 million and £8.28 million a year. They calculated that the cost of installing ATP was about £14 million per life saved, making the proposal unviable.”
These bloodthirsty Draculas, who so coolly calculate their profits in preference to human life, are the very ones who lead the chorus about violation of human rights in Iran, Iraq, Yugoslavia, etc. No wonder, then, that bereaved relatives, whose loved ones were slaughtered on 5 October at the altar of imperialist greed that Moloch-like demands daily sacrifice from its unfortunate victims, left among the flowers they placed at the scene of the massacre messages such as:
“This is a crime”; “Forget behaving with dignity and sensitivity. We need and we will scream and shout for justice”;
“Let all those who put profit before people hand their heads in shame!”
Privatisation of railways has bequeathed to us, the travelling public, an industry with a fragmented structure, with myriads of contractors, who have little knowledge of the system and safety rules, being employed to carry out maintenance. All are there to save costs, cut corners and make a fast buck. In 1998-1999 alone, a huge 643 drivers are reported to have passed through red signals – a rise of 8%. Railtrack and the 25 train operators who lease 20,000 miles of track, signals and stations, have been engaged in cutting corners in safety since privatisation 3 years ago. In the never-ceasing chase after the maximum of profits, they have been guilty of ignoring passenger safety at a time when an unprecedented 25% rise in passenger traffic, unmatched by corresponding investment in infrastructure and training, has overwhelmed an old and antiquated railway network.
What added to the enormity of the Paddington disaster was the bursting of fuel tanks under carriages. On impact, 1,500 litres of fuel was set alight, producing heat of 2,000 degrees centigrade and turning the front carriages into a crematorium on wheels. Why were the diesel fuel tanks not made to the same rupture-resistance standard as, for instance, is required in the case of aircraft and racing cars? The answer – yes, you have guessed it – is that such a measure would cost money and hurt the profits of the operators.
Sordid profiteering the cause
Following the Paddington tragedy, even respectable bourgeois journalists have been obliged to denounce this profit-chasing as
Writing in the
of 25 October, John Plender says that:
” … business people routinely assert that profit is the defining purpose of business and that obligations to employees and customers are incidental to the primary duty to shareholders. In a culture where business sees virtue in traits that would be regarded as selfish and anti-social anywhere else, honour has little meaning.
“In the aftermath of the crash, no manager would dare state publicly that the interests of employees and customers were incidental. For his part, Tom Winsor, the rail regulator, has said that safety is primary and profits secondary. But will anyone believe this?” (‘Leading top executives to safety’).
Mr Plender adds:
“But as long as there are companies in industries such as rail and energy that reward managers exclusively on the basis of financial performance, there will be a systemic bias towards cutting corners and taking risks with safety – unless the industries are managed by other-worldly sages and saints, which manifestly they are not.” (Ibid.)
Precisely. Mr Plender fails to draw – as indeed one would expect of him – the one conclusion that is crying out to be drawn, namely that there is not, and there cannot be, any other motive for production and other economic activity under capitalism than profit. This is the sole raison d’être not only of Railtrack but also of all capitalist enterprises.
Is it surprising, then, that Rod Mottram, the £148,000 a year (plus bonus) Safety and Standards director (no joke: that IS his title) at Railtrack should have opposed replacing by ATP of the existing antiquated AWS (automatic warning system) on the grounds of cost?
Guilty of Murder
It is reported that detectives investigating the disaster are to question senior Railtrack and Thames Trains chiefs concerning their knowledge of the circumstances leading up to the collision. Rod Mottram and Railtrack’s chief executive, Gerald Corbett, who gets a mere £355,000 a year plus bonus (which last year was £61,000), are to be questioned about repeated complaints and warnings from drivers and operating companies emphasising the difficulties experienced by drivers in clearly spotting signal 109. If established that there was a ‘controlling mind’ responsible for safety whose negligence led to the bloody carnage on 5 October, the companies concerned will be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter. This would hardly do justice. Those responsible for this ghastly tragedy should be prosecuted for cold-blooded mass murder, for this is what they are guilty of. The bourgeoisie and government of Britain are so busy helping to establish international tribunals for trying crimes against humanity – Kangaroo courts before which are dragged those who had the temerity to oppose imperialist brigandage. The real faces of these ‘lovers of humanity’ are like those of the chiefs of Railtrack, which makes £450 million a year and refuses, in the pursuit of insatiable greed, to invest in the safety of passengers and its own employees – the drivers. They too ought, in all fairness, to be tried for crimes against humanity.
In its editorial cited above, the
“The whole culture of the rail companies’ attitude to safety needs to be exposed.”
We agree, but go further. Capitalism, with its sole concern for profiteering, is the real cause of human misery in this instance as in every other. We must imbue the working class with this, and precisely this, understanding.
While continuing to struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism, we must also make the following immediate demands in connection with our railway network:
The introduction of sophisticated safety equipment;
Rigorous operating procedures;
Better layout of railway track;
Through training of staff;
An efficient, independent and well-staffed enforcement agency;
Taking into public ownership of the entire railway network.
In opposition the Labour Party promised
“a publicly owned, publicly accountable”
rail system. In government it has, as was to be expected, reneged on this promise, furnishing yet more proof that it is as much a servile lackey of British imperialism as are the Tories and Lib-Dems. None of this, of course, is likely to prevent the myriads of counter-revolutionary Trotskyist groups and renegade revisionists – the SWPs, CPBs and NCPs of this world – these appendages of social democracy, from continuing to support Labour as the mass party of the British working class! Neither the wars of genocide against Iraq and Yugoslavia nor the slaughter nearer home at Paddington will deter this despicable gentry from their determination to work for the re-election of Labour – of course
“committed to socialist policies”
! The job of the genuine socialists in the working class movement is to expose Labour as a party, nay the chosen Party at the present time, of British monopoly capitalism.
In conclusion, we mourn the victims of the Paddington disaster and send our sincerest condolences to their friends and families.