Government is expected to ask training board to increase standards and introduce levy on rail contractors.
Rail safety training is set to be overhauled after the fatal Potters Bar train crash in May, with the Construction Industry Training Board overseeing standards.

The government wants to clean up the industry's image after the accident on 10 May, in which seven people died, and is considering asking the CITB to take over training in the sector. If it agrees to this expanded role, rail contractors will be obliged to pay a training levy for the first time.

Insiders are confident the CITB will agree to the request. It is expected to take on the job later this year after it is restructured to become a flagship sector skills council. These are official government agencies tasked with improving training standards in particular industries.

An insider at the CITB said informal talks have been held with the Rail Industry Training Council over the proposals, and this could lead to a joint approach to training by the two bodies. He said the talks were at an early stage but it was a logical step because of the ties between the two sectors.

He said: "The Rail Industry Training Council is a far smaller organisation than CITB so it may be that it becomes a division of CITB in the future." The insider added that a number of CITB and industry training standards could easily be transferred and endorsed by Railtrack/Network Rail, which has also been involved in the talks.

David Cawthra, chairman of the National Rail Contractors Group, said nothing had been decided, but added that a levy had worked well in the construction industry.

The Rail Industry Training Council could become an arm of CITB

Insider at CITB

He noted, however, that there were differences between rail and construction, and rail contractors would have to be consulted.

If the CITB was given this rail watchdog role, it would enable the government to regulate safety training in the rail industry and fit in with Railtrack/Network Rail's plan to make it mandatory for rail contractors to use only directly employed staff.

Rail contractors are not expected to raise serious difficulties about this proposal as they are keen to ingratiate themselves with the authorities. They admit privately that Railtrack is considering cutting them out of the business altogether and creating its own direct labour force.

One contractor said the attraction of this idea for Railtrack was that it would end criticism that a government agency was handing easy profits to "fat cat contractors" that turn a blind eye to safety.

He added: "It would continue the move back to renationalisation – and as such it's very attractive to both Railtrack and the government."

The CITB scheme: How the training levy works

In April each year, every construction employer on the Construction Industry Training Board register is asked to complete a levy return. The employer gives information on its workforce and wage bill for the fiscal year so that an assessment can be made of how much the firm owes. If the wage bill, including payments to labour-only subcontractors, is £61,000 or more a year then a levy payment is required. Each employer receives a bill early in the following year after it has sent off its levy return. The levy rates are 0.5% of the wage bill for direct employees and 1.5% of the value of any payments on labour-only subcontractors. After the CITB has consulted employers and employer organisations, the levy rates to be applied are formally approved by parliament.