I’ve been rereading that Red for Danger, the classic book on rail accidents written by the LTC Rolt as I was reminded of it by attending the memorial for his wife, Sonia, who died recently. It is one of the great classic railway books written in 1955 when the world was a very different place as testified by his statement in the preface, that he confined his choice of accidents to ‘a period of 100 years, from 1840 to 1940’ because he did not want to upset living people involved in them – and consequently changed the names of those involved in the later ones.
In most respects, the book is mere history and of little relevance to the industry today given the technological changes. Most of the causes of the accidents simply do not apply today such as boilers blowing up and connecting rods snapping. However, I was struck by his description of the first major accident in British railway history, the Sonning accident of Christmas Eve 1841 which was caused by circumstances that could be replicated today.
The train was a goods train that left Paddington with a couple of third class which were packed with construction workers employed on building the Parliament building. As Rolt describes it, ‘In the darkness of the winter’s morning in the deep defile of Sonning cutting, the Hecla [a 2-4-0 engine of the Leo class] plunged into a “slip”’. The earth had been dislodged by abnormally heavy rain and the abrupt stop resulted in the third class ‘carriages’ being crushed against the tender and the engine, resulting in eight deaths and twice as many serious injuries. I use inverted commas for the carriages because they were, in fact, open sided wagons that were had ‘seats [which] were mere planks only 18 inches from the floor and the coach sides and ends were only enclosed to a height of 2 feet’. What a way to travel on a December night!
At least that largely spelt the end of open wagons as a way of transporting people, but as Rolt writes, the accident was ‘caused by circumstances which the most modern safety devices could not have averted’. Indeed, there have been several notorious landslips recently on the railway and climate change is becoming an issue of ever greater concern to the railway. There have been serious floods in Wales, Devon and elsewhere, and, of course, incursions by the sea at Dawlish and North Wales. Given that, after a lull, temperatures are rising again and we are seeing events such as the worst ever melting of the ice caps and 50 degree heatwaves in India, there is a recognition that things are not going to get any easier.
Network Rail has begun to take the issue seriously. Critics point to the fact that the landslips may well have been caused by neglect of its basic assets over the years, and the Railway Accident Investigation Board has highlighted that enough preventative work has not been carried out. The Rail Safety and Standards Board risk assessment model suggests that 7 per cent of the risk on the railway is represented by weather related incidents and many of these are related to what were once seen as ‘once in a lifetime’ incidents. Landslips are the biggest risk but there are also falling trees, and snow related incidents. Weather also contributes to other incidents, such as buckling of track in hot conditions or high winds blowing down overhead wires.
In the short term, Network Rail has greatly improved its information systems to ensure it has the latest weather information which allows the pinpointing of likely trouble spots. As an aside, it does mean that services may well be curtailed or cut completely when there are such predictions and one can only imagine the headlines in the press if the bad weather does not materialise as did happen with snow warnings two winters ago.
In the longer term, it is all about making the railway more resilient and raises difficult issues over spending. If resilience is built into the system now, so that for example drainage systems are created to cope with intensive rainfall, then the marginal extra cost now may be small. However, in an age of austerity and short-termism, and with the railway already having a £38bn programme of maintenance and investment in the current five year period, persuading politicians that this is essential will not be easy. The fact that Network Rail is overspending on several projects, notably electrification, does not help either.
Nevertheless, one railway industry insider put it to me that this is one of the major issues facing the industry: ‘We must build in the resilience and done in the right way, it will not much. If we replace a culvert and ensure that it will be fit for purpose in conditions likely to be found in 2060, and won’t therefore need replacing in say 2030, then that is money well spent’. It is the approach that brought us, thankfully, the Thames Barrier which has been
Reading Rolt’s book makes one realise just how safe the railway has become. The Clapham Junction accident in 1988 was probably the turning point in making the railway prioritise safety to a greater extent than before. Then sustainability became written into the DNA of the railway, as consciousness about environmental aspects grew. Now climate change must be considered in the same way, not as an option for discussion, or a choice, but as a fundamental part of railway thinking. In fact, in many respects, the railway is ahead of the game on this issue, in relation to other industries, some of which take the ostrich head in the sand attitude. Nevertheless, there may be still some who do not understand just how fundamental this must be as part of railway thinking. It should not have to wait for a Sonning type disaster to occur for this to be accepted.
HS2 have got to learn to be nicer
Whenever I have talked to people affected by HS2, whether in Camden or the Chilterns or elsewhere, they have always berated the sheer incompetence of the organisation’s public relations. Of course I recognise they have an axe to grind and are hardly likely to be complimentary about HS2’s organisational skills.
However, there is a very consistent thread to their complaint. They always feel that they are talking to people who are too low down the scale to do anything but repeat a mantra and stick to it. They always come away feeling they have not been listened to. While I have been slightly sceptical about this, the ubiquity of their feeling has made me question HS2’s approach. Now I have some firm evidence of its ‘deaf ear’ approach. I met a woman who lives near Old Oak Common which is set to become the biggest development area in London and the mayor has set up a special agency to deal with it. She told me that everyone she deals with whether it is Transport for London, the Greater London Authority or the local boroughs are all competent and prepared to discuss issues in genuinely consultative way. Not so HS2. Its people obfuscate and she said, ‘at times blatantly lie’ – she gave an example of the fact that HS2 is apparently taking over several people’s gardens compulsorily with no compensation.
There is clearly a big public relations issue here. It is not easy for HS2 as building a line through much of England is bound to tread on rather a lot of toes, some belonging to very important people. However, I do think that a softer, more emollient approach, using more senior people, is needed. There is an arrogance about HS2 which has resulted in ridiculous aspects such as the 400 kph requirement that will make it far more difficult to win hearts and minds. So while Patrick McLoughlin claims ‘the argument has been won on HS2’, it is certainly the case that the people have not been won over.