Not our fault

Three-minute story

Not our fault
Divided responsibilities on the tracks

When British Railways were first de-nationalised, or privatised, little thought seemed to have been given to how all its successor companies would get along. Within months there was a crash south of Stafford, on the line to Birmingham. A northbound passenger express came off the tracks and was struck by a southbound freight train.

The company running the passenger service immediately blamed the company responsible for maintaining the track for not doing its job properly. Then the company operating the freight train sued the passenger train company for obstructing and damaging their train. If that was not good enough each company started on the companies from which they leased locomotives and rolling stock, and the companies that maintained them. I think that’s about nine companies arguing the toss with each other. The trouble is that, once you find you are liable to be sued by other companies you become wary of them.

So it was that, at about the same time, a passenger train became derailed as it left Kings Cross, just beyond the end of the platforms. A station manager did what any responsible railwayman, or woman would do. He walked off the end of the platform, to make sure that no one was hurt, to make sure that passengers did not try to get off the train and wander into the paths of other trains and to make sure that safety procedures were followed to ensure that things did not get worse. Essentially, in this sort of situation, stopping other trains from approaching the scene of an accident is crucial.

But he was stopped, by a manager of the track maintenance company, and ordered back onto the platform. His responsibility covered the station, that’s what he was told – that’s what the train operating company employed him for. No longer was he entitled to think of himself as a railwayman, concerned with the safety of passengers and trains. There was a chance you see, that with his professional railwayman’s eye, he might have found evidence that it was the other company, the track maintenance company, that was to blame for the derailment.

It’s no wonder that so many trains fail to run on time.

What was the important change that had come about when Britain’s railways were privatised?

What was the effect of this change?

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