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Katherine Shonfield

In the wake of the Hatfield train crash, somewhere sunk in among all the strategic concerns, is a largely overlooked item questioning the technical specification of the rail track.

The official reason for the current go-slow is the inspection and detection of fissures, such as the one which caused Hatfield.

The physical rail track has been constituted in an essentially similar manner for the past century and a half. And in recent memory, at any rate, this is the first time the tendency to fissure has been recognised as a potentially fatal fault.

In the past, so the hypothesis goes, rail track steel was softer.

This meant damage to the surface of the rail was worn down by the repeated action of trains trundling over, it so ultimately disappeared. With the newer, harder steel now used, equivalent damage destroys the integrity of the track by developing into fully fledged fissures. So it seems that less, rather than more 'neglect'the insult of choice that is regularly thrown at the management of the railways - in the form of higher specification for the steel may be the physical cause of the Hatfield tragedy.

The industry, including both those responsible for components, and building professionals themselves, tend increasingly to see products in isolation. And received wisdom, revealed perhaps unconsciously in promotional literature, invariably celebrates the crisp edge, the hard material. There is no building science in this, despite any number of statistics.

Effective construction needs to work flexibly with a material, social world, not present an impervious face to it. This includes incorporating, and working in conjunction with, use - whether it is the predictable wear and tear of wheels on a track, or the eccentricities of weather and inhabitation.

It is likely that the generalised technical lesson of Hatfield is the same as the lesson of sustainable construction.

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