Whatever did happen at Potters Bar, the political reality is contractors will come under intense scrutiny in the coming weeks. For once it was hard to argue with transport secretary Stephen Byers, who called on Tuesday for "fundamental change". He was speaking in the wake, not just of the crash, but of a court's verdict that a 22-year-old student who had been working unsupervised on the railways had been unlawfully killed. There have been too many disasters now to resist change. Maintenance firms must, like everyone in construction, move towards airline standards of safety. They need to step up the recruitment of skilled staff – from abroad, if necessary – and train them harder. If the costs have to be shared with Network Rail, so be it: safety comes first.
Byers' comments were interesting for what he did not say. He did not suggest that contractors be removed from maintenance. Instead, he appeared to endorse Network Rail's desire to extend contracts from five to 15 years; and he talked of shared incentives and selection on best value rather than tougher penalties for safety breaches. This is understandable. The current penalties for poor track performance are draconian enough, with negligent firms facing the loss of their contracts. Jarvis, for example, is responsible for maintaining more than one-fifth of the network. Dismissal would be devastating, which is why its share price collapsed more than 200p in the days after Potters Bar. In any event, no serious business knowingly kills its customers, with the possible exception of the tobacco industry.
Amid all the hysteria over Potters Bar, it was timely of the Construction Industry Council to publish a sober report on transport last week. This concludes that Labour's 10-year improvement strategy has too many inconsistent goals, such as improving speed and safety. This is especially true of the railways, where a network creaking from decades of underinvestment is expected to carry sharply increasing traffic. Potters Bar gives Byers an ideal opportunity to acknowledge that the infrastructure can't be fixed by 2010, and to set what the CIC calls "realistic objectives". Meanwhile, says the council, projects of strategic importance should be fast-tracked. Yes, and perhaps they could be funded through the toll motorways just proposed by Tony Blair's transport guru Lord Birt. At a time like this, it would be utterly perverse to invest in roads and not rail.