Rail 438: Darling’s haste to soothe the crash survivors may backfire

If new Transport Secretary Alistair Darling wants to avoid his predecessor’s fate, he must not allow himself to be hijacked by the emotional but often irrational agenda of the spokespeople for rail crash survivors, warns CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

There has, thankfully, been little noise emanating from the Department for Transport as the new Secretary of State, Alistair Darling, finds his feet. The early indications suggest he may be tough on cars and the causes of cars, which is to be welcomed, but there was one very worrying episode during his first days in office.

Within a week of Darling taking office, Pam Warren and her gang of rail safety campaigners were ushered into his office and spent an hour with him accompanied by a media fanfare. The ostensible reason for the meeting was to clear the air after the spat over the second infamous e-mail to emerge from a special adviser to the Department for Transport over the past year, the note from Dan Corry to Labour Party HQ seeking information about the background of the rail campaigner. But Darling’s rush to meet the safety campaigners, before knowing much about his brief, could be a tactical mistake which he will live to regret.

Corry’s e-mail was nothing like the previous famous memo about trying to bury bad news in the rubble of the Twin Towers outrage which ultimately did for Stephen Byers as well as its sender, Jo Moore. The only similarity between the note from Corry, widely known throughout Whitehall as a ‘policy wonk’ and a decent cove, and the Twin Towers moment of madness from Moore – who had a reputation for eating journalists for breakfast – is that they were both e-mails from special advisers and that they were both leaked. Corry’s request was, away from the fantasy world of the right-wing press, simply an attempt to find out where the rail safety campaigners were coming from. Far from being an attack on Pam Warren, the memo specifically mentioned seeking information about the people who had succeeded her, and not her.

Corry’s memo was a perfectly reasonable attempt to find out background information about people who were lobbying the Government. Remember, Corry had been at the DTI in 1999 when the accident happened and would not have had much contact with the rail safety campaigners. Moreover, the coup de grâce for Stephen Byers’s ministerial career was actually delivered by Warren when she revealed that Byers had informed her that Railtrack was to be taken into administration, at a meeting in September which had taken place before the date the minister claimed to have made the decision. The subsequent row sliced through the last thread by which he was hanging on to office.

Moreover, the rail campaigners have jumped into the political bear-pit by making quite specific demands about future investment strategy for the railways on safety. It is no good Warren saying, as she did after that meeting: “The idea that I’ve got a political axe to grind is pathetic. I have no political agenda. All I want is safe railways.” That seems to suggest that she has no understanding of the nature of politics, which is not just about voting Tory or Labour at general elections but about long-term Government strategies and policies on matters ranging from nuclear defence to the railways.

The Guardian reported that “Warren is campaigning primarily to persuade the Government to implement the main recommendation of the Cullen inquiry into the 1999 Paddington rail crash calling for a £3bn automatic brake system to be introduced for all highspeed trains by 2010.” That is clearly a political agenda which would involve spending an awful lot of public money. Indeed, the trouble with the victims and relatives is that they think their awful experience of the railways gives them the legitimacy to make demands on politicians. In turn, New Labour, ever sensitive to a media faux pas, has cuddled up to them because they get so much coverage on TV and radio.

To be blunt, the trouble with the argument put forward by Warren, highlighted by her support for the inept campaign about rail safety based on the slogan ‘Do you feel lucky?’, is that it is woolly-headed, misguided and wrong. (Actually, even if the campaigners were right, they would still be the legitimate target of political scrutiny.)

Telling people that they face a great danger by taking trains when 62 people have been killed in rail accidents compared with 35,000 on the roads in the past decade is, frankly, highly irresponsible. (If rail were as ‘safe’ as road per mile, then we would have had 1,800 rail deaths in that time.) At root their proposition is that rail can be made 100% safe. Moreover, their focus is not on the general issue of rail safety but on the cause of the Paddington and Southall crashes, drivers taking trains through red lights – an issue that has, if anything, received a disproportionate amount of attention within the industry compared with other risks.

Any form of transport that involves travelling at more than walking speed will always involve a degree of risk. Rail happens to be by far the safest mode of travel whether one measures it by trip or by distance. Therefore any expenditure to make it even safer must be taken in the context of other modes. Now, I happen to believe, along with RAIL Managing Editor Nigel Harris, that the railways should eventually fit the European Rail Traffic Management System, but only when Level 2 becomes available, which will enable capacity as well as safety to be boosted.

However, in practice this cannot be done for around 20 years, as it can only be undertaken economically when a line is refurbished and, obviously, resignalled. Moreover, the technology has not yet been developed, and to introduce it by 2010 would not only be uneconomic, but is probably technically impossible. Rather than listening to the rail campaigners, Darling should read the report prepared by Railway Safety and the Strategic Rail Authority which argued, very coherently, for the implementation of ERTMS level 2, but with a timescale long enough to ensure it was introduced as part of a programme of increasing capacity and improving the railway, rather than Level 1 which would reduce capacity and be expensive to retro-fit.

In the meantime, the industry is introducing the Train Protection and Warning System across the network and, according to early reports, the system is reducing the number of SPADs (Signals Passed at Danger) by 80%. According to Stan Hall, a genuine expert when it comes to rail safety having written several books on the subject and worked in the railways all his life, all the deaths in rail accidents in the past 20 years caused by SPADs or speed restrictions being ignored would have been prevented by TPWS.

Yet the campaigners argue that the industry is dragging its feet because they are a load of profitmaking bastards. Their solicitor, Louise Christian, argued recently when she appeared on Radio 4’s You and Yours with Nigel Harris, that European countries had introduced the technology widely across the Continent. Nigel did not have enough time to answer and the truth is that Christian was talking nonsense. There are a couple of trials of the system but nowhere has it been introduced. Indeed, the installation of Level 2 on the West Coast Main Line south of Crewe, at a cost of £400m, is currently the biggest scheme in Europe.

The use of Ms Christian as a spokeswoman is one which brings the safety campaigners into the political arena. She has a strong political agenda which appears to go beyond the usual remit of a solicitor acting for her clients. She was a Socialist Alliance candidate at the last election, standing on the issue of renationalising the railways, and her position as spokeswoman for the group means she is given a platform for those views.

Of course, it is impossible not to have sympathy for Warren and the other victims of the recent rail disasters. They, quite understandably, want to ensure that no-one else suffers on the railways in the same way they have. It is only because they have such a powerful allies in the media, which has its own agenda, that they wield such powerful influence.

The truth, though, is that the campaigners are being used on one side by the right-wing press as a stick with which to beat the hapless Byers and on the other by the likes of Ms Christian who want to see the railways renationalised. Stephen Byers discovered the hard way that they do not necessarily play by the rules when information he gave them was later used against him. By putting them so high on his initial agenda, Darling risks the same fate at their hands. If he wants to hear the views of passengers, he should listen to the Rail Passengers’ Council which is a truly representative body rather than a ginger group of individuals brought together by a cause which is emotional rather than rational.

Shares