Rail 394: Cool heads should outweigh emotions in the ATP debate

Never in the history of the railway has its future depended so critically on the views of two outsiders, Lord Cullen and Professor Uff. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR urges them to ignore the emotional clarion calls for universal ATP installation after Ladbroke Grove and ensure that safety investment is concentrated on areas where it will have the most impact.

Are the railways safer now than a year ago?’ That was the question on every interviewer’s lips as I did the round of the studios on the days leading up to the anniversary of the Ladbroke Grove train crash.

The broadcast media want the answer in 30 words without any ifs and buts. Real life, of course, is not so simple and even in the 1,700 words at my disposal here, it is a question to which it is virtually impossible to provide an answer, but at least I can offer some pointers.

The anniversary quite understandably brought out extremely powerful emotions which make dispassionate analysis even more difficult. The survivors’ group is well organised and has made a powerful impact on the media. The BBC documentary which featured those injured in the crash highlighted just what a terrible blight the tragedy has inflicted not only on the 31 dead and their relatives but on many of the injured. The sight of the poor American, whose wounds have still not entirely healed despite spending the whole year in bed, struggling to his feet in absolute agony in an effort to walk again left me in tears.

It is, therefore, very easy to get angry with the railway companies. And rightly so. Although it would be wrong to pre-empt Lord Cullen, it is clear that a combination of wanton sloppiness, bad management, complacency and greed contributed to the disaster. One can fully understand why the survivors wanted to see a few heads roll but, so far, they have been denied this pleasure.

Therefore, when, on the morning after the BBC programme, I was in a debate on GMTV with a survivor who argued passionately that Automatic Train Protection (ATP) was the only way forward, and that the railway companies were shirking in their duty to provide a safe railway, it was hard to take issue with her. Yet I felt I had to.

In the aftermath of the Ladbroke Grove crash, I too was caught up in the general soul-searching about the failings of the industry. I wrote that the rail companies now must devise a system to prevent all trains going through red lights. I argued that the damage to the industry of another accident that was preventable by an ATP-type system was far greater than could be quantified in simple monetary terms. That remains true today. If there were to be another train disaster in the next couple of years which resulted from a driver going through a red light, the rail industry would suffer the PR disaster of the Millennium.

And yet, after watching the debate unfold over the past year, I’m not so sure that what I said in the days after the disaster was correct. Spending billions – and it will be billions, see below – just to appease the tabloids and the survivors’ groups, irrespective of any rational argument, would be a mistake. I am against giving in to such campaigners, whether they be truck drivers demanding fuel price cuts or safety lobbyists asking for the impossible. Sure, where a line is refurbished, an ATP-type system should be introduced as a matter of course. Of course, many other improvements to driver training and SPAD reporting must be made. But installing ATP at every junction and little-used line rather than, say, ensuring motorways are lit at night or that the rail network has sufficient capacity to attract people out of their much more dangerous cars? No, because the cost is just prohibitive.

The Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) would have prevented most SPAD accidents of the past few years. Even the Southall crash would probably have happened at a much lower speed and so fewer, if any, lives would have been lost. Therefore, there can be no doubt that it should be installed as soon as possible, a decision which was hastened by Ladbroke Grove. But look at the escalation of costs.

According to the opening statement by counsel at the joint Cullen/Uff inquiry – the second of three inquiries resulting from Ladbroke Grove, in March 1996 – it was thought that the whole fleet and 5,000 signals could be fitted for £33m. By the time of the accident, the cost had risen to about £220m for Railtrack alone. Now the cost to Railtrack has increased to £361m, to which must be added the costs of fitting rolling stock, now thought to be £100m. So given that ATP is now reckoned to cost £1.6bn, it is quite feasible that the eventual cost would be double. That’s £50 for every person in this country.

Moreover, even rail travellers do not want this money to be spent. In a little-publicised section of the same statement by counsel, he explained that the ‘Value Per Life’ figure – the amount which is assessed as reasonable to spend if one life were saved – used to justify road improvements is currently around £1.15m. This is a theoretical figure and, in fact, the amount of money available for road investment means that the real amount is around £100,000. Therefore, just to stress this, for any improvement where more than £100,000 is needed to be spent to prevent a fatality, the money is not available.

Yet, for the railways, the current figure – which is a real rather than a theoretical one – is £3.22m. This means that if a life can be saved for any less than this amount, the expenditure – most of which will be Government money – is agreed. In various surveys of rail passengers, the figure which respondents felt reasonable was actually considerably less – around £1m. So, away from the emotional turmoil of Ladbroke Grove, they are prepared to be pretty hardheaded about these matters.

The rail industry and the Government must therefore stand firm on ATP, given that its cost per life saved is likely to be well over £10m if TPWS is fitted in time. Certainly, if there is another SPAD-related accident, it will be terrible for the industry. As I stressed in this column recently (RAIL 392), however, the next major accident is very likely to have some totally different cause. After all, we only just missed one which had the potential of being as disastrous as Clapham or Ladbroke Grove. This was in September when the 1800 Midland Mainline St Pancras-Sheffield train was derailed at Attenborough Junction in Nottinghamshire at 80mph by debris left on the line by vandals. The Turbostar stayed upright but came to a stop 500 yards further on with the front coach resting on the opposite tracks. Ninety seconds earlier, the train would have smashed straight into a London-bound HST, also travelling at 80mph. What would all the safety campaigners have said about that, especially as the perfectly justifiable concentration on preventing SPADs, as I pointed out, has taken inspectors away from other work, notably on vandalism?

In the event, the decision on ATP is in the hands of Lord Cullen and Professor Uff, whose joint report will make recommendations about what safety system to adopt, and neither the industry nor the Government will be able to ignore them – as happened after Clapham. Cullen is a canny fellow who is not scared to upset vested interests, as he did when he reported on the Piper Alpha disaster, but also independent enough to stand up to the hordes howling for ‘ATP now’ who, incidentally, rather remind me of those demonstrators in the 1980s shouting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, OUT!’ Never has the future of the rail industry been so dependent on the views of two outsiders.

In answer to the campaigners, the first myth to dispel is that the railway companies have done nothing in the past year to improve safety. That is patently wrong. While Gerald Corbett, Railtrack’s Chief Executive, has banged on a bit too much about how there is so much more investment going into the railways, he has been right to point to improved procedures in dealing with signals where there have been multiple SPADs, the speeded-up programme to introduce TPWS and the reduction in broken rails.

Secondly, the notion that after all the fuss is over, railway managers will simply go back to their old ways is wrong-headed. To take one example. Under new regulations which come into force at the end of this year, the safety cases of rail companies will not only have to set out how their operations will be safe, but, more important, how they will get safer year-on-year. That is a step-change which will force the industry to focus on safety in every aspect of its work.

Is this all being too kind to the railway companies? Probably not, but we will have to see what they do in the aftermath of the Cullen report, which is expected to be published in the middle of next year. Will they accept the criticism and even chop off a few heads if necessary, or will they adopt the bunker mentality which certainly seems to have been Thames’s hallmark over the past year? By then, many improvements should be clear to the passengers and they should be able to respond to any criticism robustly. If they are not able to do so, it will show they have failed to heed the lessons of Ladbroke Grove.

So, to answer the question posed at the top: yes, the railways probably are somewhat safer. But they already were the safest form of travel by a long way, so in a sense the question is an irrelevance. There are, however, several areas of concern. First, as the latest figures show, the performance of the railway is deteriorating sharply in terms of punctuality. Laterunning trains, as Gerald Corbett has explained to me in the past, mean more red signals and therefore more risk of SPADs. The deterioration is, too, potentially a result of a casual attitude which also increases risk.

The extra investment coming into the railway is, ironically, an added risk in the short term. More possessions and temporary signalling procedures is another risk factor. And we have the rise in vandalism already mentioned. So yes, Ladbroke Grove has resulted in some improvements, but there are dangers ahead as there always will be when you have large object moving around at 125mph.

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