Rail 629: The railways underplay their safety record

There was, thankfully, limited media coverage of the tenth anniversary of Ladbroke Grove and it was mostly very restrained though a Telegraph article referring to ‘burnt victims [who] died slowly in St Mary’s Paddington’ was utterly gratuitous.

 If the ‘why oh why?’ type of articles were mostly lacking, so was coverage of a remarkable achievement, the fact that the railways – provided, touch wood, there is no disaster in the next couple of months – will have got through the decade of the noughties with just three accidents caused by the railways and which resulted in passenger fatalities – Hatfield, Potters Bar and Grayrigg – with a total of just 12 dead. (I leave aside Ufton Nervet and Great Heck which should, logically, be counted as road accidents). That is far fewer than in any decade and, indeed, as recently as the 1980s it was rare to have a year in which there was not a fatal train crash. Now it is the exception rather than the rule.

 It is worth noting that other transport modes have experienced a reduction in deaths, though on the roads this has been a far slower process and the numbers are still enormous, with 60 deaths per week still being the norm. However, aviation’s record has improved at a similar pace to the railways. Again, in the 1980s, disasters were frequent, even among the major airlines whereas today, with the occasional exception such as the Air France Airbus which plunged into the Atlantic during a storm in June, they are very rare. Most notably, the new low cost airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet have not suffered any fatal crashes and, indeed, I suspect that if they had, they would have gone the way of ValuJet, which effectively went bust after the accident in Florida in May 1996 which killed all 110 people aboard.

 However, the reduction in deaths on the railways has been, proportionately, far more marked than that in other industries and that is an achievement worth celebrating than it has been. Partly that is a result of superstition, with concern that such discussion is tempting fate, but, in fact, it is very important to stress rail’s safety improvement as so much damage was done by the series of four major accidents in the five years following privatisation – Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar.

 While one serious disaster, which can never be ruled out when considering an industry where very huge chunks of metal travel at speeds above 100 mph very close to one another, would affect these figures, it would merely be a blip as the statistical trends are well established and have been for a very long time. Every postwar decade since World War Two has seen fewer deaths on the railways than the previous one, demonstrating a long term squeezing out of risk.

 The improvements since Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield, though, appear to have accelerated the long term trend and there are good reasons for that because there have been fundamental changes in the management of safety since then. There is as a senior transport source put it to me, ‘a radically improved safety culture on the railways.  No TOC would now dream of putting people in cabs with the skimpy training and support which led to Ladbroke Grove.  This is partly because of the improved safety regime above – but other factors are doubtless the replacement of Railtrack by Network Rail, and the fact that the industry is not in a state of cultural revolution as it was during privatisation and its aftermath.’

 That brings up the central point of my book, On the Wrong Line, now sadly out of print, and which has attracted considerable debate. There is no doubt, as I argued in the book in much detail, that the upheavals and disruption that resulted from privatisation was a direct cause of these accidents. What the source refers to as a ‘cultural revolution’ was an upheaval to a safety critical industry pushed through at a rapid pace without regard for past practice and experience.

 Each of the four accidents resulted from a series of factors, many of which could be traced to the way the industry had been subjected to a rapid and ill-thought out ‘revolution’ with no input from railway managers who were excluded deliberately from the process. It is no coincidence that since the new system has bedded down, there have been fewer accidents. The way that privatisation was implemented remains one of the great scandals of the late 20th century. Yet, none of those responsible ranging from politicians like John Major and John MacGregor to civil servants like Sir Steve Robson, the ‘brains’ behind the scheme and who later went on to become a non-executive director of Royal Bank of Scotland while it was embarking on policies that led to its collapse, will ever be held accountable for the disaster.

 The changes to the structure of the industry since the accidents – and in many ways Hatfield led to more fundamental ones than Ladbroke Grove – have been remarkable. Just to mention a few: Railtrack has been replaced by the not for profit Network Rail which itself has taken on a wider role by taking maintenance in house; the Rail Accident Investigation Branch has been created to break the link between the organisation setting and imposing standards and accident investigation; safety regulation has been removed from the Health and Safety Commission and handed to the Office of Rail Regulation in order to coordinate safety and economic regulation; and the Strategic Rail Authority has come and gone.

 There is too, what Anson Jack, the no 2 at the Railway Safety & Standards Board highlighted in the last issue of Rail, the huge investment programme not just to implement the Trains Protection & Warning System, which have proved far more successful than predicted, but also in new rolling stock and improved signalling. As he put it, ‘every time new kit is installed to modern standards, the risks come down’.

 There has, of course, been a tremendous cost to all this and not just a financial one. At times the industry and the safety regulators go over the top. The constant announcements of ‘take a moment to view the safety features on this train’ are ludicrous not just because they are unnecessary but they make people nervous when, in fact, it has been shown in the aviation industry that people who are not expecting a crash are more likely to survive than those who do. (Apparently because those who do give up more easily rather than trying to escape.) There is, too, the expense of introducing measures which are unnecessary or which are belt and braces, and delays caused by over defensive driving or bureaucratic implementation of rules.

 On the whole, however, the industry has responded sensibly and in a measured way. Like Nigel Harris, who mentioned in the last issue hearing the mobile phones of the dead and injured ringing in the wrecked train, I have my own personal memory of Ladbroke Grove. I went to the site that evening to do various TV interviews including one from a roof of a nearby warehouse overlooking the site. The sight of the wreckage of the front coach of the Thames Train over hanging the HST, as if the train had been cut up with a can opener, was so shocking that it has never left me. Thanks to the efforts of a myriad people in the rail industry, it is far less likely that I will ever view such a horrendous sight again. The railways and all those who work in them have much to be proud of about this improvement in safety and the industry should do much more in stressing that achievement.

 

God save us from the Euston Arch

 

There is, apparently, a good chance that the Euston Arch may be restored. Most of the broken up columns were dumped into the Prescott Channel, part of the River Lea, in North East London and the Euston Arch Trust is campaigning strongly for them to be used as the basis of a restored arch. Apparently the stones are in good condition and could be reclaimed.

 To my mind, this is nostalgia for the railway of the worst kind, an attempt to restore a structure that was a banal piece of Victorian classicism which served little function other than proclaiming the power and ambition of a long gone railway company, the London & Birmingham, which built it. Greek temples look great in Greece but we do not need to pander to the Victorian obsession with columns.

 The Euston arch restoration would be a waste of money and send out the wrong message about the railway, suggesting it is obsessed with the past and its history rather than the future. St Pancras was worth restoring and celebrating because it was a fascinating building that could be restored and adapted to 21st century use. That would not be true of the Euston Arch. A set of Doric arches on the Euston Road in front of what will hopefully be an innovative and attractive new station would simply be out of place and redundant. Leave the stones in the River Lea for archaelogists of the 25th century to ponder over.

  • Good read, but I’m not in favour of trumpeting the safety aspects of rail. Not because of superstition, but because we shouldn’t be “proud” that a system is merely working as it should. The only reason we care about this is precisely because we insist on comparing it with other, legacy systems—i.e. roads—which would never have been permitted today.

    So, yes, rail’s safety record looks great compared to roads, but that’s hardly a stretch. We should be making a hue and cry about how *bad* road safety is, not how *good* rail is by comparison. We should be pointing out the serious double standards involved. We should be putting the *road lobby* on the back foot! Why are we so blasé about this?

    *

    I think I agree with you re. the Euston Arch. I’m a little more neutral about it though. If the Euston Arch restoration supporters are willing to pay for its reconstruction (though it won’t be exactly the same; it’ll be “adapted to 21st century use” too), then bully for them. I just don’t want to see the taxpayer saddled with the bill.

    In fairness, the Arch does have a symbolic value, in that it is the last remnant of the original station. Frankly, the engravings and paintings I’ve seen of said station never made me feel I was missing much; the original station appears to have been a mish-mash of structures, rather than a single, coherent whole.

    The real problem is that Euston wasn’t even the first station serving London, so, as you point out, its Arch isn’t symbolic of the station’s primacy. It’s just an early Victorian equivalent of the recent expression of corporate willy-waving using skyscrapers. The first station to serve London is London Bridge, which is now on its umpteenth major redevelopment since its original construction.

  • Anoop

    The main improvement in railway safety has been due to the strength of modern railway carriages and shatterproof laminated glass windows. This means there are very few serious injuries even in high-energy crashes. The downside is increased weight, more wear on the track, increased greenhouse gas emissions and increased maintenance costs.

    *

    I am also neutral about restoring the Euston Arch. If it is to be done, it should not be at public expense. The money can be better spent on other improvements to the railway.

Shares