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Delude Retreat Indemnify Prevaricate Squander

Failure's price tag perversion

Have you noticed how the extent to which someone royally cocks things up is now proportional to the benefits bestowed on their lifestyle? Disgraced former Chief Constable Graham Maxwell, who admitted gross misconduct in helping a relative get a job with North Yorkshire Police, was released with a golden goodbye worth £247,636. Meanwhile, having presided over a 61% drop in Aviva’s share price during his five-year tenure as its Chief Executive, Andrew Moss ran for the door burdened by a severance package of around £1.5 million.

But those wallowing amongst the lower ranks cannot evade disciplinary scrutiny with such apparent ease. Railway frontliners often feel an investigator’s breath on their necks for the most minor of misdemeanours. And on a corporate level, Network Rail suffers punitive financial sanctions for each and every delay whilst banks are rewarded for recklessly bringing the economy to its knees by having money thrown at them. Something’s not right here.

How can delays warrant a proportionally stiffer fine than wrecking three lives? Is that justice?
Photo: John Linwood

Late-running trains and cancellations can turn best laid plans upside down; nobody appreciates them. Currently 89.2% of long-distance services are punctual, some way short of the 92% Network Rail must reach to avoid being fined. The level of that fine is substantial: £1.5 million for every 0.1% below the agreed punctuality threshold. So the firm could find itself hit with a £42 million penalty payment next year if things don’t improve. According to the Office of Rail Regulation, this regime provides Network Rail with an “incentive” to cut the “unacceptable” number of late or cancelled services which affected the journeys of 13.7 million passengers in 2011.

Although the ORR believes that passengers are experiencing good levels of punctuality by historical standards, its spokesman made it clear that “Network Rail committed to achieving more, and taxpayers and customers have paid the company to deliver. Our investigation showed that the company struggled to cope with the challenges of reaching its long-distance punctuality target.” The regulator claims that many problems are “of the company’s own making”, such as equipment failures and deficient timetable planning.

Hitting corporate entities in their pockets certainly focuses the managerial mind. David Higgins, NR’s Chief Executive, has made it clear that “we accept the challenge to deliver an even better service. We are determined to do all we can to achieve that through balancing the continued growth in demand with passengers’ desire for improved reliability in terms of punctuality.” And that resolve must be welcomed. But it does make you wonder why the same approach isn’t applied to other areas where the railway needs to perform better.

On 6th May 2009, 55-year-old Julia Canning - a mother of three - was struck and killed by a First Great Western train as she used a foot crossing on the main London-Bristol line near Hungerford. One of the two dogs she was walking also died.

Network Rail was charged under the Health & Safety at Work Act after an ORR investigation found that the firm had failed to act on substantial evidence that people using the crossing had insufficient sighting of approaching trains (click here if you don’t understand what an ‘approaching train’ is), resulting in them being exposed to an increased level of risk. Network Rail admitted the offence at a hearing last January; in June it was fined £356,250, and ordered to pay £19,485 costs, by Judge Peter Ralls QC at Southampton Crown Court.

“Not acting to minimise the known risks was a serious failing on Network Rail’s behalf”, asserted Tom Wake, the ORR’s Deputy Director of Railway Safety. “We recognise that Network Rail has now made a number of improvements at this crossing, making it safer for pedestrians. Safety is the regulator’s top priority and we continue to push Network Rail and the industry to deliver safety improvements at all level crossings.”
Safety is the regulator’s top priority...

On 29th April 2007, 50-year-old Charlie Stockwell died instantly when he was struck by a train whilst welding at Ruscombe Junction, also on the Great Western Main Line. And on 23rd May 2008, 55-year-old signalling technician David Coles had to have his leg amputated after a train hit him as he carried out a facing point lock test at Kennington Junction near Oxford.

Network Rail was charged under the Health & Safety at Work Act after an ORR investigation found that “poor planning and inadequate systems to safeguard workers” were to blame for the accidents. In May, Network Rail admitted two breaches of the Act and was fined £150,000, and ordered to pay £32,500 costs, by Judge John Reddihough during a hearing at Reading Crown Court.

“These were serious failings on Network Rail’s part, with tragic consequences”, asserted Tom Wake, still the ORR’s Deputy Director of Railway Safety. “We acknowledge that Network Rail has made a number of changes to improve safety for trackworkers since these incidents. But as the failings were significant, Network Rail must be held to account.”

Yes, there’s something not right here too. “The failings were significant”; “safety is the regulator’s top priority.” And yet, in purely monetary terms, killing two people and horrendously injuring a third only warranted a penalty equating to a train performance shortfall of just 0.034%.

Life is priceless, we all know that. But justice is the foundation on which society is built and it must be seen to be done. Increasingly, offences against the person seem to attract more lenient sentences than other categories of crime. A disparity has emerged here between the valuation of life and inconvenience, one which most right-minded folk will find perverse.

Reflecting on the court case, Charlie Stockwell’s son Leon, who previously worked on the railways, said “Whatever they say it is not going to bring my dad back, but the fine is a joke. They are not going to learn anything. They are just going to treat it as a slap on the wrist. Bang them a couple of million pounds and they might actually start thinking ‘we can’t afford to lose this kind of money’ and start learning something.”

If it works for delays and cancellations, why can’t it work for flesh and blood?

Story added July 2012

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