Our railways have undoubtedly got safer. Every year, Andrew Evans, a professor at Imperial College produces a statistical analysis of the trends in rail safety both in the UK and in Europe. The British section has made particularly comforting reading for several years as, there has not been a fatal rail accident for more than a decade on the national network (trams are not included in his analysis and hence the deaths in the Croydon tram disaster in November last year are not included).
While the fact that there has not been a rail accident causing a fatality for the ninth successive year, an unprecedented record in the history of the railways, Evans drills down into the statistics by considering the numbers of potential causes of fatalities, such as collisions, derailments and overruns. These have reduced by an impressive 7 per cent per year, a testimony to a much improved safety culture in the industry. The year 2016 was, too, the second successive 12 months in which there were no fatalities caused by collisions between cars and trains, which generally happen at level crossings. This suggests that the work on crossing safety, which has long been a focus for the industry, is paying dividends..
While the report by Evans is reassuring, the very improvements it reports can increase the risk of a disaster if those responsible for safety lose focus and become too relaxed about risk. This is where the work of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch is important. Created in 2005 and modelled on its aviation equivalent, the RAIB was initially viewed with some suspicion by some railway managers who felt that it was just one more bureaucratic organisation created out of the fragmentation from privatisation and duplicated the role of the police and Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate (then part of the Health and Safety Executive, and now subsumed into the Office of Road and Rail)..
In fact, by looking at accidents in a structured way, the RAIB’s work has proved invaluable and it has now become an accepted part of the industry. Because its role is not to lay blame but to drill down to find the causes of accidents and, crucially, make recommendations and occasionally examine patterns that may emerge from different accidents. If anyone in the industry is starting to regard safety as a given and not anything to worry about, the RAIB’s annual report covering the year 2016 which has just been published will disabuse them as parts of it make rather scary reading.
The Grenfell tower disaster shows what happens when complacency sets in. I did a couple of broadcasts from the scene a couple of days after the fire (in my political capacity) and was struck by its proximity to the Ladbroke Grove disaster, less than a mile away and of potential similarities between the two. I will never forget doing a TV interview in 1999 on the day of the accident from the roof of a warehouse from which one could see the wreckage of the Thames commuter train, one of whose carriages was carved open like the lid of a sardine can. The sight of the burnt out tower, whose shell will remain for months – if not longer – next to the Westway motorway will equally be seared into my brain until I die. Grenfell, the worse fire accident since World War Two was, just like Ladbroke Grove, eminently preventable and caused by the failure to assess risk by senior people.
The railways are always just a hair breadth away from disaster and it is a fantastic tribute to everyone involved in the industry that there have been so few accidents since the early days of privatisation. The RAIB report demonstrates how the superb record of the past decade could so easily have looked very different. There have been several near misses on the rail network recently in which only luck and timing has prevented a major disaster. Most notably, there was the signal passed at danger by the steam hauled enthusiasts’ train at Wooton Bassett. That was in March 2015 but rereading the report which only came out in May last year made my hair stand on end. If the steam hauled train had passed the red signal just a minute or so before, it would have collided with a High Speed Train, causing what would have been Britain’s worst rail disaster in at least a generation, if not longer. It would, incidentally, at a stroke killed off the future operation of any steam hauled locomotive on the national rail network.
Signals passed at danger (SPADs) are, however, mostly a thing of the past. In this case, the drivers had actually turned off the Automatic Warning System, that is the primary prevention mechanism, and to a great extent the Train Protection and Warning System, introduced network wide after the Ladbroke Grove accident, has greatly reduced the chance of a SPAD causing a major disaster.
It is the cause of the other near miss that presents a far greater risk. That was the derailment of a train from Milton Keynes on the up slow line at the entrance of the Watford tunnel, pictured here, which was caused by a landslip. Fortunately the train, though travelling at 70 MPH, remained upright and was hit a glancing blow by a down service two minutes later but despite damage to both trains, there were only a couple of minor injuries.
It could have been so much worse and it is no surprise that of the eight potential areas which the RAIB reckons present a systemic risk, the first it mentions is ‘the possible ‘failure of earthworks and structures’ which are mostly the result of climate change. Since its creation, the RAIB has published 25 reports on accidents caused by such failures and it warns that with climate change, there is a great need for the railways to be particularly vigilant in this respect. There have been several spectacular events such as the slide that caused the recent lengthy closure of the Carlisle – Settle line and the Hatfield Colliery landslip in 2013, which so easily could have resulted in a disaster.
Other issues picked out in the annual report include risks at the platform/door interface, level crossings and, interestingly, fatigue on which, the RAIB reports, progress has been slow as train companies have been slow to recognise the risks that unsuitable rostering can pose.
Ensuring there is another decade without a death caused by a rail accident – the last was the death at the derailment of a Virgin train at Grayrigg in February 2007 – will require more than just more of the same. It will need everyone in the rail industry to be aware of the risks and not to hold back from reporting them to managers. And it will need a good dose of luck, too.
German efficiency does not always live up to its reputation
My recent journey to Cologne by rail from London proved to be rather more eventful than expected. It started off well, with Eurostar delivering me to Brussels a couple of minutes early although the ride, only my second in the new Siemens stock was remarkably bumpy especially once we had crossed the Channel and were speeding over the northern French tracks. It was also enlivened by my long search for the sockets to recharge my devices which are under the gap between the seats and as someone for whom dexterity has always been a challenge (I am in fact of the sinister persuasion), I found I had to get on my hands and knees to plug my charger in. Not a great piece of German design.
The Thalys ride to Cologne was more exciting. We reached Aachen more or less on time and then sat there for several minutes before the guard announced, impressively in three languages including English, that there was a tree blocking the line. Typically German – we have leaves on the line, they go for whole trees. After 20 minutes, the guard informed us that we would be miss out Cologne and progress to Essen, the train’s destination, via Monchengladbach. I was not in a hurry so rather liked the prospect of a trip on a regional service from there to Cologne, whereupon he said we were reverting to the original schedule and we eventually arrived in Cologne 50 minutes late.
And it was the same on the way back. But there was even a mishap getting to the station. For once I had allowed myself lots of time to get to the station which was fortunate since the tram I hopped on to got stuck on the inclined down to a tunnel. We waited for about 20 minutes and I started fretting when the driver announced that the service in front had broken down. He opened the doors to allow us out, and we had to clamber up a narrow walkway out of the tunnel. I suspect that health and safety would have intervened in Britain and I might still be in that tram! In the event, a couple of buses got me to the station.
In fact, I needn’t have worried about the delay. The Thalys train arrived in Cologne 12 minutes late and then trundled its way on the slow line to reach Brussels nearly an hour down because a thunderstorm had knocked out the high speed line. Luckily it arrived just in time to allow me on to my return Eurostar which again was uneventful. The grass is not always greener on the other side of the Channel but that is not an excuse for supporting Brexit, as one of my followers on Twitter suggested.
And finally, shameless plug: there’s a handful of places left for my lecture on the role of the Transsiberian in the Russian revolution is at 7pm on July 21st at the British Library – sign up here https://www.bl.uk/events/revolutionary-railroad-the-transsiberian-1891-1920 but do it quickly.