2016 has been the year of the unexpected. One cannot blame Mystic Wolmar for just seen a smoky blur in his crystal ball. Maybe we should have been alerted to the sheer unpredictability of the times we live in by Leicester City winning the Premiership after starting the season at 5,000 to 1.
Brexit was another surprise, though this time Mystic, until the last days of the campaign after the murder of Jo Cox MP (another completely bizarre and tragic event) had been predicting that a win for Leave was not so unlikely given that the Brexiteers had a lot going for them in terms of external events. And every time you saw reporters going into the Rust Belt you got an inkling that perhaps Donald Trump, the candidate who seemed like a joke out of The Simpsons, might just win through.
But who would have thought that a near decade without a fatal rail accident would have been broken by tragedy on that most banal of railways, the Croydon Tram system? This would have been Leicester City territory in terms of betting – except, interestingly, when you start considering the circumstances and realise that there were dangers that could have been foreseen.
In a sense, one can argue that the national rail network’s safety record of not having a fatality in an accident since the February 2007 Grayrigg derailment when one woman was killed, remains intact. Light railways are regulated in a completely different way from conventional heavy rail precisely because they have very different characteristics. They can run on streets, they are not controlled all the time by signalling and they are able to handle far sharper curves than trains.
The other remarkable aspect of this tragedy is that it was almost as if that famous recommendation from Jo Moore, an aide to Stephen Byers, that the terror attacks of 9/11 would be a good day ‘to get out anything we want to bury had been followed. At any other time than the day of the result of the American election, with its sensational surprise, the tram crash would have made a front page story for several days. However, the momentous nature of the election of the most unsuitable man ever to be elected to the US presidency ensured that the Croydon tram disaster received far less coverage than it would have done on virtually any other day.
Actually, trams do not have a particularly great safety record because they often operate on streets, interacting with motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. Pedestrians hit by trams have a much lower survival rate than those involved in car accidents precisely because of the weight and size of trams. Cyclists are particularly vulnerable to mishaps because the rails sunk into streets are terrible traps for cycle wheels, as I can personally testify having been sent tumbling off my bike in Oslo once as I failed to traverse the track at a sufficiently wide angle.
However, these incidents do not involve passengers in the trams and one has to go back to the 1950s to find a fatality to a tram passenger in the UK – one person was killed following a crash with a lorry in Glasgow and a subsequent fire – and to 1917 when there was an accident involving more fatalities than at Sandilands – 11 people were killed on a runaway tram in Dover. Therefore even when every significant town was blessed with a tram network, there were very few accidents and there had been no fatalities on board a tram in the new generation of light railways that started with the opening of the first section of Metrolink in Manchester in 1992.
What makes the Sandilands incident all the more remarkable is that it occurred on a section of track that was an old railway line and therefore separate from the road. However, the sharpness of the curve suggests that the current alignment is different from that of the old railway and this seems to have contributed to the disaster.
Of course we do not know the precise cause of the disaster, but there is little doubt that the tram was going too fast to stay upright round a bend that had a speed limit of 12 mph. Given that this was at the bottom of a section where trams routinely go up to 50 mph, this was, with the benefit of hindsight, a highly risky part of the line. In the past, such sections might have had a compulsory stop before the tram could proceed. Several passengers have come forward to say they had concerns about the safety of the system in this particular location with reports, unconfirmed admittedly, that in one previous incident a tram almost toppled over. These claims will clearly form part of the investigation currently underway by both the British Transport Police and the Rail Accident Investigation branch.
A veteran of tram systems in London told me that he remembered that the tram coming down Highgate Hill always had to stop before proceeding precisely because of the risk of running away.
Since trams are operated under different regulations than railways, the safety precautions are different. Consequently there is no equivalent of the Automatic Warning System, let alone the Train Protection Warning System fitted following the Ladbroke Grove train crash, to ensure that trams do not overspeed. They are, in effect, driven rather more like buses than trains as drivers basically follow the line of sight rather than signals.
There is a risk, therefore, that in a panic measure, onerous safety requirements are imposed on existing or future trams systems as a result of this disaster. Certainly, the specific aspects of having a 12 mph curve immediately below a fast section does seem to pose predictable risks, but we must be wary of the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, it would be tragic if this accident, such a rare event, become a barrier to the introduction of more tram systems, either through overall suspicion of the safety of systems or, more likely, by pushing up costs which are already far higher in the UK than in Continental Europe.
Outsourcing is bad news
I am slightly distracted at the moment as I have been selected to fight the Richmond Park by-election in the Labour cause. It is a pretty much full on three weeks and I was selected partly because transport is one of issues that features strongly, with not only Heathrow being high on the agenda but the problems of commuting into town. I have experienced this personally, having twice been delayed on trains between Waterloo and Norbiton, and a couple of other times being confused by misbehaving information panels in the trains. Announcements are patchy, with some trains having the guards repeating the automatic ones, while others have none at all.
The other route I have been using is the London Overground between Gospel Oak and Richmond and the contrast is remarkable. The trains, of course, are newer, but it is the stations, which have all been refurbished and are well light which are the clearest contrast. There are, though, far too many announcements, especially about ‘taking all your belongings with you’ and so I try to block them out totally. All in all, it is a far more pleasant experience and I always think that this part of the Overground, formerly the North London line, is the clearest evidence for the importance of railway lines in cities. It is always well patronised all day as it is a radial line offering journeys between London suburbs which otherwise would be very difficult by public transport or even, often, by car. And that is the line which nearly got killed off in the 1970s as closure was recommended by Beeching and right into the early 2000s was operated as a half hour service with trains that only just missed out on World War Two.
So on the doorstep, I am finding support for the idea of Transport for London taking over some of the South West Trains services. However, as I have mentioned a couple of times in this column, services will only improve if the same amount of money is available for investment and staffing. And that is a big If.
Anyway, just to end on the betting theme I started this column with, I am currently 250 – 1 to win the seat on December 1st – which means I am 20 more times more likely to win than initially Leicester were to win the Premiership. Definitely worth a fiver – which will help me by bringing my odds down, too. Mystic Wolmar, though, is staying schtum.