Heritage railways: Nearly a very nasty train crash
The nostalgia for the age of steam has been turned into a profitable business. Rail trips using historic steam locomotives are very popular at holiday times. I enjoy them myself. They are not cheap but then safety standards for the travelling public need to be very high and it costs a lot of money to maintain steam locomotives.
Last year on one of these trips there was nearly a catastrophic train crash. A steam special from Bristol run by West Coast Railways overshot a red light at Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire coming to rest on the South Wales main line only a minute after a 125 First Great Western express to Paddington had passed by. Some 750 people were on both trains. The inspector's damning report is here.
I am not going to comment further on this incident as both the engine driver and the company are facing charges under health and safety legislation due to be heard at Swindon Crown Court in May.
However I am going to comment on the repercussions that followed this highly dangerous incident as it has led to West Coast Railways temporarily losing its licence ( now restored) to run a train service on Network Rail lines and to an extraordinary exchange of letters between the Office of Road and Rail, the regulator, and the company. Both can be found here.
What emerges from the correspondence is that this was not an isolated incident but one of a number - not all of which had been properly reported on other steam enthusiast's train trips. And furthermore the company's attitude to safety culture was seen by the Office of Road and Rail as bad. It found " that there is still an inadequate appreciation of the need for an appropriate safety culture from the Board down, and the senior management's role in ensuring that its staff operate safely. "
The report revealed also the staff who operate these trains were nearly all on cheap zero- hours contracts - a matter that the company has now promised to rectify and that it was not clear who was responsible for the day to day running of the company either. Serious matters indeed.
David Smith, chairman of the company, has promised major changes to the way the company is run.
He writes to the ORR :" We have engaged the services of a respected independent safety consultancy to review our management arrangements and conduct safety culture surveys and gap analysis within the organisation. They will also conduct an assessment of the executive, identifying development plans if necessary."
What is clear is that the West Coast Railway Company needed more than just a major overhaul but a complete change of attitude from top to bottom. The public exchange of letters by the ORR shone a light on an area which the public know little and tend to trust the operators because they are used to high safety standards on their daily commute or travelling across the country by rail.
Luckily for the company we are discussing this after a " near miss" not a fatal accident which could have killed and injured hundreds of people - and probably led to the end of main line steam heritage trips.