Rail 575: Rail covers all angles to boost safety

It is easy to forget just how assiduously the industry pursues the quest for an ever safer railway. This everlasting search is highlighted by the publication of two recent, and very different, reports. The first, the research published in the summer by the Railway Safety and Standards Board into the potential value of fitting seat belts on trains, received scant attention in the press but is a milestone in debunking an oft quoted myth. The second, the industry’s own report into the Lambrigg train crash in February is a comprehensive self-examination which demonstrates that much progress has been made in such investigations since the failure of the Potters Bar inquiry to find out what happened.

The seat belts report originally also emerged from a rail accident, the derailment at Ufton Nervet caused by a suicidal car driver. In particular, a 14 year old girl, Emily Webster was killed in the crash after being thrown out of the train and her father, who was travelling with her at the time, campaigned vigorously for seat belts to be fitted on trains.

There was much coverage in the media, some highly critical suggesting that neither the Department nor the railway industry was taking the matter seriously. However, they were. The RSSB research was a very thorough exercise, looking at the all the fatal accidents of the past decade – Watford, Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, Great Heck and Potters Bar – as well as Ufton Nervet. In all, 12 out of the 60 people who died in those accidents were thrown out of the train which suggests that there was a prima facie case for fitting seat belts on trains.

However, once the problems of fitting seat belts are examined in detail, it turns out that far from making passengers safer, they would increase the risk of serious injury or death in the event of an accident. The current generation of seats is designed to deform on impact, providing some cushioning for passengers subjected to rapid deceleration.

However, seats would have to be strengthened in order for belts to be fitted and, according to the report, such seats would result in ‘on average, almost double the level of injury’ sustained by anyone who, not wearing their belt, would fly into them. Moreover, crucially, in high speed rail accidents many areas of the carriage are concertinaed which results in what the report calls loss of ‘survival space’. In most cases, people are naturally thrown out of their seats, usually to somewhere safer. However, if they were wearing a seat belt, then they would be much more likely to suffer an injury as the train collapsed around them.

Indeed, the report suggests that for everyone thrown out of the train who was killed, there would be eight people ‘would have been likely to have lost their lives [by] being restrained in an area losing its survival space’. In other words, the total death toll in all these accidents would have been around 150 rather than 60 had firmer seats and seat belts been fitted.

One interesting side effect of the research is that we are going to be spared the sight of hammers in the train which are intended to break windows in the case of an accident. The research found that almost invariably, it was safer to exit by doors rather than by a window and therefore passengers will no longer be encouraged to break windows to help escape. Even in the – rare – event of a fire, staying on the train and using conventional exits is safer. The crucial development from the research will, therefore, be that windows on trains will be strengthened to reduce the likelihood of breakage in an accident. Stronger laminated windows have already been fitted to newer trains like the Pendolinos which is why there appeared to be no broken windows following the Lambrigg accident, definitely a factor which contributed to the low number of casualties.

That brings us neatly onto the Lambrigg report which, as Nigel Harris pointed out in the last issue, makes painful reading. It outlines a string of minor mistakes and omissions that led to the accident. In fact, all railway and aviation accidents are similar in that they are rarely due to a single cause since the lessons of previous disasters have been learnt.

Lambrigg was typical in that it was a succession of small errors that led to the accident. A change in working arrangements following the increase in the speed limit that was not properly thought through, a patrolman who did not go to the end of his scheduled route one day and a general culture of poor working relations and sloppiness. There was, as ever, a strong element of bad luck. The report goes into all this in painful detail and spares no blushes. It is all too obvious that this whole area of Network Rail was in disarray and that no one in management had got to grips with it.

The most bizarre part of the report is its use of the expression ‘learned helplessness’. It says that this culture ‘affected [the workforce’s] decisions and actions resulting in a management style where breaches were left unchecked and observance was unrewarded’. What on earth is that supposed to mean, and is it catching? ‘Learned helplessness’ is, in fact, a common psychological term referring to experiments with dogs who, apparently, can be conditioned so as not to try to escape from an unpleasant sensation such as an electric shock if, previously, they have found it to be impossible to do so. In this case, the people working on the railway in the area had such negative views of their work that they had given up on trying to improve it. They had learned that they were powerless in the face of poor management and unsatisfactory working practices, so they gave up.

Indeed, the whole work culture in the area was dysfunctional. The key question is how far up the management hierarchy should this have been spotted? That is the one big question which on which the report fails to shed any light.

Nevertheless, the railway industry deserves enormous respect for carrying out this sort of work. Rather than shying away from such difficult issues, the industry, partly it must be said out of regulation, is prepared to tackle them head on. The seat belts report is a sober, well thought through assessment of an idea that appears to be attractive and yet would be counter productive. Contrast that with the automobile industry which expands millions in lobbying against any improvements in safety or, indeed, in reducing carbon footprints.

Take, for example, the issue of car drivers and passengers wearing helmets. This is a question that is never really seriously considered but which, I am sure, would save dozens if not hundred of lives a year. It would highlight the risks of an activity that kills 3,200 people every year and would rather dent the suave image portrayed in the industry’s propaganda. This just goes to show the extent to which the railways have covered all angles in their bid to improve safety while the car lobby and industry is allowed to get away with wholesale carnage to which little attention is paid.

The Department recants

There has also been something of a mea culpa from the Department for Transport. A few issues ago (Rail 571), I picked up on a rather worrying quote from an unnamed DfT spokesperson who told The Guardian, in response to an increase in complaints from passengers on overcrowded trains, that: ‘The reality is that 6 per cent of the population travels on railways. Why should people who don’t use the railways regularly fund people who do?’ As I pointed out at the time, there are a lot of reasons they should, not least the fact that the railways are environmentally less damaging than other forms of transport. And in any case, far more than 6 per cent of the population use trains.

It is gratifying, therefore, that Tom Harris, the rail minister, has now dissociated himself from these remarks. In a recent interview, he made clear that the spokesperson’s views were not those of the Department and that he recognised that the railway was of value to everyone in society: ‘Even people who drive into work will benefit from the fact that their colleagues take the train, because the roads will be less congested’, he said.

That’s fine except it leaves one rather worrying question: why does the Department employ people who are prepared to sound off against the railways and speak outside their brief? Perhaps Harris might investigate exactly who made that statement and suggest they get themselves a job with Ford or Toyota.