Rail 501: Highway chiefs shirk duties where roads meet rail

The media coverage of the Berkshire train crash was remarkably restrained. There have been few calls for radical improvements in safety and many editorials have pointed to the railways’ excellent safety record.

The exception was Bob Crow, the RMT union leader, who, true to form, tried to exploit the situation by suggesting that the railways were dangerous and all level crossings should be replaced by bridges or tunnels – does he not know that such statements threaten his members’ jobs?

The sensible media reaction was, too, in sharp contrast to the Whistleblower programme screened just two days before the accident on BBC1. This was a concoction of half-baked stories uncovered by a team of three BBC undercover reporters who had spent six months desperately trying to prove the railways were unsafe. I had the temerity to criticise their efforts in an Evening Standard piece the following day which argued that the railway had begun to get its act together on the issue of safety, but that did not mean the industry could ever be 100% safe.

I was particularly critical of the fact that the team had suggested the track was unsafe, so when a Radio Five Live researcher called me the following day to alert me to the accident and said that there had been ‘a derailment’ my heart sank. Had my defence of the railway proved mistaken virtually before the ink had dried? Fortunately not. It quickly emerged that the accident was not the responsibility of the railways but I had a bad moment or two. Back to Ufton: is there a real trend to recent train crashes? If we look at the six fatal train crashes since the mid-1990s, starting with Southall, there are some eerie coincidences. They fall into three neat categories of two: Heck and Ufton were caused by cars on the line; Southall and Ladbroke Grove by drivers going through red lights; and Hatfield and Potters Bar by track defects. Three of these accidents have involved Great Western trains, while GNER has had two accidents, Thames and WAGN one each and freight trains were involved in two of the collisions.

In terms of routes, they also divide neatly: three were on Great Western Railway lines, three on the East Coast – which means that in this period, there have been no major accidents on the whole of what used to be the Southern Railway, on the Midland Main Line or the West Coast. I cite these coincidences to demonstrate that sometimes what are perceived as trends can be purely random. Great Western staff, for example, were at fault for just one of the three accidents in which they were involved, while GNER was in both cases simply unlucky. I am sure that Virgin staff are no more or less safety-conscious than their equivalents on other lines – just luckier. Yet such statistics are often used by journalists and commentators to try to draw simplistic conclusions. However, there is one common feature of all these six crashes which does bear consideration – all involved trains travelling around 100mph. Sure, the Southall train had slowed down from the maximum line speed of 125mph by the point of impact, but only because the driver spotted his mistake, albeit too late to do anything about it, and the inquiry suggests he was still travelling at 80-90mph when he hit the goods train.

The speed of these accidents explains the scenes of utter devastation which, in turn, attract extra publicity. But the fact that the speed is so high in each case marks something of a trend, the rise in the number of fast trains. And that does raise some significant issues. I am not suggesting that our trains should crawl along at 30mph when their counterparts in other countries such as Japan can run trains significantly faster than we are. But, rather, that speed is more dangerous here because it is on a mixed traffic old railway. You don’t get slow trains (Ladbroke Grove), freight trains (Southall, Heck) or level crossings (Ufton) on dedicated high-speed tracks, and moreover, you do not get so many points which contributed to the derailment of three of these trains – Potters Bar, Heck and Ufton. Highspeed railways across the world have an unblemished safety record with no major disasters – the German ICE accident at Eschede in 1998 occurred when the train was travelling on conventional mixed-use track, as did last week’s accident in Australia – and therein lies a lesson. If inter-city rail travel is going to continue growing, which is highly likely with the motorways more and more clogged, then as the lines become more intensively used, the risk of accidents will rise.

And as society as a whole is less prepared to accept the catastrophes – or, more precisely, the sight of these disasters on TV – than it used to be, that will put pressure on the politicians to mitigate the risk. The accumulation of accidents, therefore, is fast becoming part of the argument for the building of high-speed lines, and it is one that the railway should be prepared to point out to the politicians. Note, for example, just how few air disasters on mainstream reputable airlines we have now. The rail industry is going to have to strive to equal aviation’s record.

And if we accept and want high-speed trains, then it may be appropriate to re-examine safety standards in the light of the Ufton accident. The regulations concerning level crossings were framed in the early 1980s when there were far fewer 100mph trains whizzing round the network. The rules limit line speeds at automatic half-barriers to 100mph but Stanley Hall, the railway safety expert who was on the committee that drew up these regulations following the 1986 Lockington disaster at an unguarded crossing, reckons the time may have come to reassess them: “There are far more trains going at that speed and it may be that we should look at whether there should be a gradual reduction in what line speed is acceptable.” (See feature on pages 20-22.)

Of course, whatever rules had prevailed, nothing could have stopped this accident if, as expected, it proves to be suicide. But the incident has focused attention on one of the remaining areas of risk on the railways, something which the Health & Safety Executive had highlighted already – the interaction between cars and trains. The fact that the regulations are so old demonstrates that little has been done to tackle the issues in this area. Although Network Rail has removed 170 crossings over the past two years, most of that has been as part of the West Coast Main Line upgrade and so this programme is bound to slow down in the near future.

Looking more closely at the road-rail interface, the railways get a bad deal in every way. For example, if a council decides to build a lorry park or supermarket that happens to be on the wrong side of a level crossing and therefore forcing the railway to upgrade it, say to fully staffed status, then it is NR’s responsibility – not that of the councils or the supermarkets. Conversely, however, if NR decides that a crossing has become too well used by rat-runners and that motorists can, in any case, use an alternative bridge involving just a couple of miles of detour, then, again, it would be the railway which has to cough up. Moreover, there are thousands of small crossings around the country that once might have been the result of a split field owned by the same farmer, but which now serve no such purpose. Yet it is the duty of the railway to keep them open, at possibly considerable cost, because of these grandfather rights.

The highway authorities – mostly the county council but occasionally the Highways Agency – simply have no interest in looking at the road-rail interface. They want to get on with building or maintaining roads and have no truck with the railway, as it were. And perhaps that highlights the most fundamental problem with this area – the railways are still treated as if they were owned by the cavalier railway barons of the 19th century, when much effort was expended in restricting these behemoths from abusing their monopoly powers. They are still considered as intruders; the attitude is that that they must pay for everything they do and be controlled in every which way.

There are always lessons that can be learnt from tragedies – even when the industry itself was not at fault. The biggest one is that it is time a joined-up, commonsense approach was taken to the road-rail interface. It cannot be sensible for county councils to simply wash their hands of the road-rail interface. But it is up to a united railway industry to play its hand right in order to get the rules changed to ensure that the balance of responsibility is shared more equally.

Now that would be a more sensible, proportionate and practical response than Mr Crow’s, but not necessarily any easier.