Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Defending rail safety regulations

by Rob Laurie

AROUND 300 protesters gathered at King’s Cross tube station last Saturday in a demonstration organised by the Fire Brigades Union against plans to downgrade safety regulations on the Underground.
Eighteen years have passed since the 1987 fire at London’s King’s Cross tube station killed 31 people, when rubbish in an ill-maintained escalator caught fire. In the aftermath of that tragedy the judicial inquiry chaired by Desmond Fennel recommended strict new safety rules on underground railways which were adopted and are in force to this day.
These regulations are now under threat thanks to changes planned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister which are due to be introduced next year. Instead of the existing regulations they will be replaced by laxer rules allowing individual risk assessments of each station. As maintenance of the Underground is now in private hands, inspectors will be under commercial pressure to cut costs.
Local Labour MP Frank Dobson opened the proceedings by regretting the necessity for calling such a rally. Two other Labour MPs spoke: Jeremy Corbyn from the neighbouring Islington constituency urged the audience to keep up pressure on their MPs on the issue, while John McDonnell of the Labour Representation Committee denounced the rule changes as an unacceptable attack on the safety of Londoners.
Keith Norman, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, claimed that the proposed changes are an invitation to operators to cut corners in the interest of the commercial companies now responsible for maintaining the track and stations.
The general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, recalled attending the funeral of Colin Townsend the fireman killed that night 18 years ago.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT transport union, concluded the rally by attacking Government plans to run the new rules in tandem with the old for six months in order to avoid them coming into force before the local elections next May.
He promised that any threats of a reduction in safety would be met by a huge ballot in favour of industrial action.