BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 12.05.02

Interview: DON FOSTER, Liberal Democrat Transport Spokesman

says recommendations to improve safety on the railways are being implemented too slowly and that the structure of the industry is to blame.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Let's get a political view on that. Don Foster, the structure of the railway Christian Wolmar says is absolutely crucial, George Muir says no it isn't, it's a dangerous distraction. What do you think? DON FOSTER: Well can I begin by first of all giving condolences to those families of the people that were killed in this tragic accident, but I think Christian's absolutely right. The fragmentation that we saw following privatisation has led to significant difficulties, not least because we frankly don't know who to praise and who to blame for each of the things that are happening on our railways and there a number of things that could be done very quickly to resolve that particular problem. We could very easily reduce the number of train operating companies, that is by reducing the number of franchises, and going a stage further and giving an opportunity for the train operating companies who want to, to take over responsibility for the maintenance of the track on which their trains run. That doesn't mean wholesale re-nationalisation but it is a way of reducing that fragmentation, and fragmentation is also reflected even in the safety arrangements that we've got for our railways. We've got a number of different bodies who are involved and indeed a number of different bodies currently involved in the current investigation. HUMPHRYS So you wouldn't go back to the old British Rail; system. You wouldn't go back to having an operator of the trains and the operator of the railways, of the track, of the infrastructure all one body? FOSTER: In the ideal world I'd certainly like to see that, but the reality is achieving that would to some extent, as George Muir says would be a distraction, but more importantly, would cost a vast amount of tax-payers' money to buy back all of those shares in the train operating companies and the various other bodies and that money is urgently needed. HUMPHRYS .....well maybe you simply give them Railtrack...maybe you give the train operating company...find a way of giving the train operating company Railtrack. FOSTER: Well, that's a possibility, but the linking of the maintenance of track with the train operators I think is the most sensible way of moving forward, but let me give you one specific example about where I believe we've got real problems. Following all of those previous accidents, recent accidents, that Christian Wolmar referred to, we've had a number of detailed reports. Those reports have made a number of recommendations about improvements that need to be made with very clear timetables associated with them. But the reality is that in each case we have not seen those recommendations implemented to timetable, and indeed, in the case of the most recent crash at Hatfield, we haven't even had the publication of the final report as to what happened there. So there's real concerns that because of this fragmentation we don't even know who to blame for the fact that we're not getting on with the recommended improvements to our railway system. HUMPHRYS But isn't that partly because some of those recommendations would have been absolutely breathtakingly expensive. If you'd introduced the kind of ATP system right across the network the way that was recommended on one occasion it would have cost countless billions of pounds and you'd then have to start saying do you not: should we be spending that amount of money to save one life? Of course every life is precious, but you have to put this into context. FOSTER No, John you're right. You choose a very good example, Lord Cullen's recommendation of the introduction of Advanced Train Protection Systems to be installed by 2008 and to be up and running by 2010 is in my view totally unrealistic, not least because the type of system that we really need to see which is the European Level Two System to be technical simply isn't operating anywhere in the world at the moment, so that's an understandable one where the industry has quite rightly said, look, we simply can't do it, it costs too much, and anyway it's realistically not possible to do. I have no objection whatsoever to the industry looking at the various recommendations that have been made, making clear where they don't think that they can be achieved, or are not even sensible to do, and we have a revised timetable for those recommendations we're going to go ahead with. But that has not happened either, the vast majority of recommendations that the industry accepts should be done have not been done to timetable, and where there's been a disagreement there hasn't been a sitting down and a coming forward with a clear new timetable so the public knows what's going to happen. HUMPHRYS Is..... FOSTER: If we're going to regain confidence we need to know what is going to be done, who it's going to be done by, how it's going to be paid for and when it's going to be achieved. HUMPHRYS: But the other way of regaining confidence might be some say, to put this whole thing into context - it's very difficult to have this discussion at the weekend like this when people are grieving for their loved ones and people are in hospital terribly injured, but the fact is railways are safer than other forms of transport. We had terrible accidents when British Rail was running things, and indeed before British Rail came along. Have we not to say this was a terrible accident, and we'll try and learn the lessons, but let us not over react, let's not scare people off the railways. Some politician have done exactly that. FOSTER; To some extent you're right. And I accept entirely that our railways are very much safer than travelling on our roads. Indeed if you look at the figures per passenger mile safety on our railways is actually getting better still, but that doesn't alter the fact that there's a great deal that needs to be done that could be done, and will be done more easily if we had a less fragmented system. I'll give you one other example. HUMPHRYS Make it a brief one. FOSTER; Four and a half years ago the government introduced a Secure Railway Station Scheme, to make our stations themselves very much safer. Four and a half years on less than ten per cent of the two-and-a-half thousand stations have achieved accreditation. Nobody's pushing them, nobody's making that happen, and that's just one of many examples of things that could be done and have not been done. HUMPHRYS; Don Foster, many thanks.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.