July 2005 - Strategic Rail Authority pulls off a final act of folly

01 June 2013

The Strategic Rail Authority is not long for this world. Its main function was to put a superficial gloss on rail privatisation - provide a light regulatory cloak over the realities of the market place. It was the privateers' unconscious tribute to the continuing power of the collectivist ideal. It was supposed to supervise the competitive scramble for profit while guarding the integrity of the rail network as a whole.

But in a report issued last month, and unaccountably ignored by the media, it abandoned the early adoption of the European Rail Traffic Management System. ERTMS is off the agenda until beyond 2020.

This is an idiocy of unimaginable proportions.

The 2001 Cullen report into the Paddington train crash and the 1997 Uff inquiry into the Southall crash both led the industry to the conclusion that the ERTMS formula was the surest way to ensure a safer railway.

I was angered by the two-timing two-step by SRA chairman David Quarmby and Network Rail boss John Armitt who synchronised their support for this headlong retreat from the commitment to public safety that emerged after the rail disasters of recent years. But this betrayal of trust is not only an insult to the memory of the victims it is a short-sighted response to the deep structural problems of the privatised railway system.

It should not fall to a railway workers leader to point out that abandoning ERTMS is an act of commercial folly. You might expect these highly rewarded captains of the railway industry to have an eye to efficiency and profit. But that would run counter to the logic of privatisation - to which these people are wedded - which is to elevate short term profit over strategic investment.

The truth is that ERTMS offers not only the prospect of safer running but higher rail traffic density.

Quite simply, the Victorian railway regime of track possession and block signalling that we inherited - along with the breathtaking scale of investment of our forefathers - permits safe running but limits traffic density.

ERTMS liberates us from these constraints. And in doing so permits a strategic shift to rail transport. Our current freight on rail campaign shows we care about the future of our industry and our environment. The same cannot be said of rail industry bosses.

Keith Norman 
Acting General Secretary

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