Rail 435: Industry unites in conspiracy for common sense on safety

For once, the rail industry has demonstrated a united front in its resolute stance against the Uff/Cullen report’s recommendations on introduction of ERTMS. If only it would pull together more often, laments CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

There is a conspiracy in the rail industry. Indeed, it even seems to have percolated through to Whitehall and the office of Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary. Its target is the rail survivors and victims groups who, ever since the Ladbroke Grove disaster, have, along with their overpaid and all-tooarticulate lawyers, determined the terms of the debate over rail safety.

But no longer. The conspiracy to break their hold on the debate and to institute a rational safety policy in the rail industry looks like succeeding. The issue is, of course, the imposition of the European Rail Traffic Management System in the UK. ERTMS is not, as is often commonly thought, a safety device to prevent trains going through red lights but is a system for controlling trains which will have automatic train protection as a side-effect.

The joint report by Professor Uff and Lord Cullen published last year in the wake of the Southall and Ladbroke Grove disasters recommended that the system should be installed on the UK main line network in order to ensure that such accidents would not happen again. Specifically, it said that Level One of ERTMS should be fitted on to trains by 2008 running at over 100mph and on to all track with a line speed of over 100mph two years later.

As everyone in the rail industry knows, this was just plain daft. Uff and Cullen got it into their heads that similar accidents to those at Southall and Ladbroke Grove must be prevented at all costs and therefore made no attempt at any cost-benefit analysis, let alone a technical assessment of the feasibility of their proposals.

At first, the rail industry was so stunned that there was an apparent acquiescence to the recommendation of the two not-so-wise men. But gradually, a little guerrilla campaign was mounted with senior rail executives saying, in private, that not only was the recommendation ridiculous, but it was unachievable. In public, however, they kept schtum, fearful of eliciting the wrath of the survivor groups and their friends in the media who so readily jump on the bandwagon of rail safety stories.

The first glimmer of a real conspiracy emerged early in February when simultaneous stories appeared in The Guardian and The Independent saying that the Government had no intention of meeting the 2010 deadline set by Uff/Cullen. Lesson one of spotting sources of leaks is that if the story appears in two or more newspapers on the same day, it is most likely to have come from some kind of semi-official but deniable briefing. And when it appears in two papers relatively sympathetic to Labour, you can bet your bottom dollar that the source was a ministerial one.

The industry, meanwhile, hid under the cover of a report being produced jointly by the Strategic Rail Authority and Railway Safety, the body hived off from Railtrack as a result of the Cullen inquiry. When the report was published, at the end of last month, it was clear that the combined forces of the rail industry had decided to pull together in order to kill off Uff/Cullen. At the press conference, there were no fewer than nine rail executives representing all parts of the industry to present a united front.

The report, predictably, says what has become conventional wisdom across the industry. Of course the railway should fit the European system, but not within the deadline, since it was technically impossible, and it should go straight to Level Two, which would enable capacity to be maintained. The trouble with Level One is that it would reduce the number of trains able to travel on the network.

The path had been smoothed early that week by the publication of a statement from the Commission for Integrated Transport, chaired by the media-friendly and authoritative Professor David Begg, arguing strongly that fitting Level One would so reduce capacity that it would increase road deaths and therefore would be a counterproductive waste of money. Begg’s intervention was clearly part of a concerted and largely successful campaign to soften up public opinion to the fact that a major part of the accident report was not going to be implemented.

And the industry got away with it. Apart from a few bad moments at the press conference when Richard Bowker, the chairman of the SRA, failed to tackle headon the issue of when precisely ERTMS would eventually be implemented, the whole event passed off smoothly. There were no ‘bodies on the tracks’ type stories in the tabloids and the survivors’ groups, apart from a few predictable blatherings from lawyer Louise Christian, were remarkably muted.

If only the industry did that more often! There is still a lot of finger-crossing to go. Once TPWS is fully installed, the likelihood of a catastrophic incident involving a Signal Passed at Danger is minimal, as the system would slow down a train even if it failed to stop it in the overlap. If it should happen, however, the recriminations would be terrible. But then what the rail companies now seem to understand – and what Railtrack failed to in the aftermath of Hatfield – is that they are in a risk management, not elimination, business.

ERTMS is not the only issue which needs a crossmodal approach. Rod Muttram, the head of Railway Safety, in a recent letter to a magazine, argues strongly that the current legislation governing railway safety is too narrowly framed as it does not allow those policing it to consider the effect of their actions on other modes. He says that the new legislation “should require an assessment of the total safety impact of any new measures including modal shift”. That would put the issue of rail safety in a much wider context, ensuring that any decisions would benefit society as a whole rather than, as now, punishing the railways while increasing the numbers killed on the roads. The industry must seize on Mr Muttram’s suggestion and lobby for it with the same coherence that has brought about success on ERTMS.

What next after Network Rail?

I remain convinced that the creation of Network Rail and the various bits of refranchising currently being announced do not mean that the debate about the future structure of the railways has ended. Indeed, when I wrote in a recent column that I had always been sceptical about the whole concept of franchising and asked “What, exactly, is it supposed to achieve?”, it matched similar concerns that had already been expressed within the Strategic Rail Authority. (The recent bail-out of Anglia merely reinforces the doubts about whether the franchises really amount to anything much more than management contracts with little risk transfer.)

Therefore, it is worth noting the idea being put forward by Jonathan Bray of Transport 2000. He suggests that Network Rail should be used as the foundation for recreating British Rail but this time as a Trust. (Incidentally, there were several voices within the embryonic Network Rail who would have been very happy to have called it, er, British Rail, especially as all the other good names such as Rail UK had been taken and that Network Rail is a gift to the headline writers who will quickly transform it into Network Rail.)

According to Mr Bray’s plan, Network Rail would take on more of engineering control and, crucially, the SRA would announce that rail franchising was dead as a policy because, as he puts it, “it creates too much fragmentation, doesn’t provide quality services and is too inflexible in responding to changing circumstances”.

Mr Bray then suggests that the SRA creates new subsidiaries based on the old sectors of InterCity, Network SouthEast and Regional Railways to take over passenger operations as franchises fail and lapse. Thus, “over a long period you gradually move towards a railway that’s entirely operated by the SRA-owned CLGs – but for many years there will be a mixed operation and for passengers it will be a far more integrated service with SRA in control of the timetable, investment strategy and rail policy.” As with all suggestions, it is possible to pick holes in the structure, but, crucially, the idea fulfils what must be the goal of all serious players in the industry – an integrated, coherent structure for the railways.

Anti-passenger antimacassars

The failure of the train operators to understand the basic premise that they are in this game to serve passengers never ceases to astound me. Reader Graham Jellett has tried to get some sense from First Great Western over the labelling of the antimacassars. Incidentally, could some erudite RAIL reader please explain to me why the cloths protecting headrests go by this wonderfully evocative name and perhaps explain to me what a promacassar looks like?

Mr Jellett feels that putting First on all the antimacassars, even those in Standard Class, is misleading because passengers may think that it refers to the class of the seats rather than to the name of the company operating the service. This is one of those corporate branding exercises like the creation of Consignia Royal Mail so beloved of corporate communications people but loathed by the general public.

Mr Jellett has a good point since a quite substantial part of the population still think the trains are provided by British Rail and others are under the illusion that Railtrack runs the services.

First directors may think that their company name is on the lips of all their passengers but most, as Rhett Butler put it in Gone with the Wind, ‘Don’t give a damn’ who is operating the train. This is particularly true of the many tourists using Great Western services who may struggle all the way up the train carrying luggage in search of seats in which they are confident they can sit.

Mr Jellett’s protests, however, fell on deaf ears. His first e-mail was simply met with an explanation that First Class is designated by the ‘cantrail’ above the carriage windows and the second with an even more patronising explanation that First referred to First Great Western and not to the class of the seat. Doh.

This is a no-brainer. Even if only a couple in every 100 passengers are confused by the markings, then it is enough to cause substantial hassle on already overcrowded trains. If the company has any regard for public relations, it will replace the 25,000 or so antimacassars as quickly as they become soiled with dandruff and provide some alternatives with sensible labelling.

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