Good PR masks Network Rail failures

The railway industry generally gets a much worse press than it deserves. Despite the fact that even at the worst of times, over 80 per cent of trains get there on time and that it is by far the safest form of transport, the brickbats never stop flying.

So normally once there is an accident, the brickbats start flying. This time, however, it was different. In the immediate aftermath of the Cumbria accident there was remarkably positive coverage. In contrast to previous rail disasters where the focus has immediately been on the failings of the industry, there was much praise for the Pendolino trains for withstanding the impact virtually unscathed and much attention was paid to Richard Branson’s comments about the ‘heroic’ driver staying at the controls trying to save the train.

This was, in fact, brilliant PR. Even the government did well by ensuring that the Transport Secretary did not turn up at the scene and make ridiculous promises about rail safety, as John Prescott had done following the Ladbroke Grove disaster.

In fact, the truth is rather more complex. Of course the trains are far better designed to cope with an accident than their older predecessors but then so they should be. They are just three years old and built to the much higher standards required by far more stringent safety rules. Fortunately, the accident happened on a straight piece of track, which meant that the train stayed on the embankment for several hundred metres before ploughing into the field. That ensured that most of the forward momentum had been lost, which greatly limited the damage on impact.

As for the driver, he was powerless to do anything. Branson seems to have likened him to a pilot battling with the ailerons and flaps to keep a plane in the air. Branson’s comments suggest he is not aware that trains have no steering mechanism and that the brakes come on automatically in such cases, leaving the driver with little to do other than save his skin. The train stayed upright because it was straight track, not because of anything the driver did.

But whether Branson’s intervention was incredibly naïve or very clever, the strategy worked and the hero driver story was swallowed whole by several newspapers, not least The Observer whose headline even mentioned ‘the hero’ driver.

All this detracted from the rather more worrying point about the cause of the crash, the terrible condition of the points which led to the derailment. Once the preliminary report of the Rail Accident Investigation Board report was published, the railway – and Network Rail – were open to severe criticism. Indeed, the points were in such a bad condition that there are very serious questions to be raised about the management of Network Rail.

Given the Network Rail spends more than double the amount that British Rail did on maintenance and that the West Coast Main Line has just been refurbished at a cost approaching £10bn, it seems incredible that such basic errors can be made. Although the unions routinely ask for public inquiries following such accidents, in this case they have a point. An enquiry, though, should not so much examine the specifics of this crash, but consider how so much money is being spent to, apparently, so little avail. By the time it reports, the good coverage in the early days of the accident will be long forgotten and the railways will be the Aunt Sally yet again.