Rail 484: Ministers must hold their nerve after Madrid

If politicians create a sense of panic about security on the railways in the wake of the Madrid bombing, warns CHRISTIAN WOLMAR, it could have serious long-term consequences for the industry.

In the wake of the Madrid bombs it is the reaction, or more accurately overreaction, which could spell disaster for the railways. The politicians need to get it right or the railways could face an enormous security bill and a loss of confidence in the system, with dire consequences.

There is no doubt that our railway system is equally at risktosuchanattack, but it is the way that politicians and the authorities respond to the outrage in Spain which could be of longer-term consequence to the rail industry.

Aside from the possibility (probability?) of an attack, there are two potential dangers. The first is if ministers panic over the likelihood of anattackonthe railwayorTube system, and try to impose unworkable safety measures on the system. Secondly, there is a more insidious risk which, though slower in its effect, could have a dramatic long-term impact: the creation of a sense of panic fomented by the politicians about public spaces and facilities such as the railways.

In the wake of the attack, there was a series of suggestions about checking luggage and bags being taken on to the rail or Tube network.One letterwriter to The Independent suggested that it was inevitable. In response, the police let it be known that they were increasing the number of officers patrolling at stations and considering the issue of baggage checks. So the Evening Standard’s lead story was ‘baggage checks at stations’.

This is all patent nonsense. The British Transport Police has a force of 2,100 of whom, say, at best a third are on duty at any one time given the need for 24 hour cover, holidays, court appearances and other absences. There are 2,500 main line stations, 275 Tube stations, 18,000 daily trains and 13,000 miles of route – let alone bridges, level crossings and depots, all of which could be used for an attack. It would, in fact, be impossible even to check passengers going into one of the larger stations such as Victoria or Waterloo. Spot checks, which might, say, enable 5,000 people to be searched out of daily ridership of the two systems of six million are just a pretence by suggesting that something can be done in response to a threat that is, unfortunately, ever-present.

The railways are different from aviation where it is feasible to carry out checks because there are a very few points of entry into the system. Sure, baggage on Eurostar trains is checked but that service is used by a mere 20,000 people per day at just five principal stations.

However, none of this stopped the Lib Dems from making fools of themselves in an attempt to score political points and capture the public mood. Simon Hughes, their mayoral candidate for London and a veteran MP, warned that plans to enable mobile phone calls to bemade on the Tube should be postponed while the implications for terrorist attacks were considered because mobiles had been used to detonate bombs in Madrid.

Now as a Tube user, I feel ambivalent about having to listen to people’s overloud conversations about feeding the cat while I am hiding behind my Evening Standard. But progress is progress and if we are to get more people on to public transport, then it is essential to offer this kind of facility to people who might otherwise drive.

Hughes must know there are countless ways of detonating bombs, and stopping the use of mobile technology on the Underground will do absolutely nothing for the safety of the system.He is either a fool for not knowing that or a knave for exploiting a terrible tragedy for short-termpolitical ends.

What is more worrying is that other politicians might try to outdoHughes in their ‘security must be the top priority’ type of approach. Ministers must hold their nerve over this issue in a way that they have shown little sign of doing in the past – witness John Prescott’s ‘money is no object’ comments after the Hatfield train crash.

Of course we should all be vigilant and un- British by challenging people who have left bags lying around. But it is simplistic to assume that we can protect the system against a terrorist outrage. That is also true of the roads. Indeed, the road network is even more at risk than the railways and it would be a cinch to blow up a major motorway bridge because it is much easier tomanoeuvre a lorry full of explosives on to the system. Yet, where were the politicians and police officers warning about the risks on the road network? Conspicuous by their absence.

But even if the worst happens, there must be a sense of perspective about this. In retrospect, it is amazing how calm we all were during the 25 years of IRA attacks on the mainland. Sure, after the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, the IRA realised that trying to slaughter large numbers of civilians was not a good tactic in winning over hearts and minds.While there were deadly attacks at stations, and litter bins had to be removed, there was a much more measured response from politicians.

Now we get Tony Blair suggesting, even before the Madrid attack, that we are all in ‘mortal danger’. That is a naked attempt to make political capital out of terrorism and to justify his ill-advised war in Iraq. Even if 1,000 people were killed in a terrorist outrage on a railway station in the UK, that would represent less than a third of the number killed on the roads every year, and just a few more than are murdered annually. Any of us can fall under that proverbial bus tomorrow and, statistically, we are inmuch more ‘mortal danger’ from such traditional mishaps than from Al-Qaeda.

We are missing a sense of proportion, here, and this is not just about transport. As a species, we are bad about assessing risks. Indeed, I have long argued that risk assessment should be a basic part of the school curriculum, because an understanding of the subject would ensure that people were better able to make informed choices. Unfortunately, we are moving the other way. The section of the maths curriculum dealing with probability has just been removed from the compulsory part of the course taught to all schoolchildren, an amazingly short-sighted move by the Department for Education because, as citizens, we are increasingly being asked to use such basic tools for assessing schools or even hospitals, which have death rate ‘league tables’.

Hence, according to a survey by the Commission for Integrated Transport in 2000, a staggering 15% of respondents thought that the car was the safest form of transport when, in fact, the railways are, at a conservative estimate, around eight times safer. Yet, half that number said the railways were safest and 45% thought it was aviation, which according to the Railway Safety Standards Board is actually over twice as risky per 100 miles travelled.

As John Maule, director of the Centre for Decision Research School of Business and Economic Studies at Leeds University, put it, people are not very good at assessing risk even when they are provided with detailed figures. “Human beings have limited capacity for thinking. Because our capacity is limited, we seek ‘smart but simplified’ solutions to problems, which allow us to arrive at a judgement, but not necessarily the right one,” he said.

That is why the politicians have a key role to play, presuming, of course, that they paid attention in their maths probability class. But they do need some nudging from the rail industry, which has largely been silent on the issue in the forlorn hope that Al-Qaeda will disappear back into the Afghan mountains. No chance. The rail industry must make its voice heard and, indeed, lobby ministers over this issue.

If the railways are to spend more on security, then it has to be beneficial: more staff on stations, increased CCTV coverage (if properly monitored), staff training (for example, for cleaners and revenue protection inspectors on how to check for devices) and better-lit stations are all good terrorist prevention devices.Moreover, these measures all raise the overall feeling of security on the railways which makes them worthwhile.

But who will pay? Clearly there is no extra money at the Department for Transport, but perhaps theHomeOffice could be tapped for a few bob (like taking over the funding of the BTP). The rail industry has to target its existing funds wisely if it is to make the case for increased but sensible security. No to bag searches, yes to routine, low-profile preventative measures. Not an easy message but a vital one if terrorism is not to become the railways’ nemesis.