Rail 407: Two not-so-wise men follow a very bright but illusory star

By playing to the tabloid gallery, the two distinguished authors of the report on train protection systems could be storing up more damage for the railway than the accidents they are seeking to prevent, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR believes. He explains why the industry should present a united front against the Uff-Cullen report’s central recommendation – otherwise, he warns, the result could be an ultrasafe but barely used railway.

Professor Uff and Lord Cullen have done the railway a big disservice in pandering to the media outcry about safety on the railway. In their report on safety systems to prevent trains going through red lights, they have failed to take into account a wider view of safety and transport. The consequence could be even more disastrous for the railway than the Hatfield crash and its aftermath.

The principal recommendation of the Uff-Cullen report is that all 100mph lines should be fitted with the European Train Control System to prevent trains going through red lights by 2008. The trains should all have the equipment by 2010. They are keen to ensure that another high-speed catastrophe caused by a driver, like those at Ladbroke Grove and Southall, never happens again.

Egged on by a sensationalist press with no understanding of risk assessment or cost-benefit analysis, the two not-so-wise men have concluded that the public would be outraged if there were a recurrence of such a disaster. I agree that the industry must work towards eliminating such accidents but it must be done in a cost-effective and realistic way.

Where they have gone badly wrong is in setting such a ridiculous timetable, especially as they have agreed that the implementation of the Train Protection and Warning System programme should continue. TPWS, they accept, will prevent something like 70% of accidents caused by SPADs and will reduce the speed of impact for the others. So, using their figures, the implementation of ETCS is predicted to save two to three lives a year at a cost of £2-3bn. Over the lifetime of the system, say 30 years, that equates crudely to around £30m per life saved. And that probably doesn’t take into account the fact that better coach design will lead to fewer deaths in a major collision in the future.

This is the economics of the madhouse. So where were the voices of sanity in the industry expressing concerns about this timetable? Why did no industry bigwig – someone from the Association of Train Operating Companies or Railtrack – get up and say: “Hold on a sec, let’s just think this one through a bit. Do we really want to impose these costs on what is already the safest form of travel?” Instead, there was silence. Partly this was out of fear. Sticking your head up above the parapet with the big guns of The Daily Mail and The Sun aimed at you is not a pleasant experience – and what would Pam Warren, the Ladbroke Grove victim in the mask, say?

Other than terror of the tabloids, the second reason for the industry’s silence on this issue may be the fact that it is not going to foot the bill. The two not-so-wise men admitted as much in a passage in their press statement which demonstrates just how badly the architects of privatisation got it wrong: “At the time of privatisation, it was foreseen that the railway industry would itself promote and fund major safety improvements through the regulation system. It is now accepted that the bulk of the cost of the next generation of train protection systems will be met by public funding. Accordingly, the need to justify expenditure on the basis of cost-benefit analysis has largely been overtaken by decisions made by government, in conjunction with the Health & Safety Commission”.

They go on to say that they were therefore not concerned with “the economic justification of the new train protection systems” and that the course of action with the ‘”wider public interest should be adopted”. In other words, b***er the cost, the taxpayer is coughing up.

This bodes badly for Lord Cullen’s full report into the Ladbroke Grove crash. If he makes a whole new set of recommendations – for example, on the performance of coaches in accidents – without a sense of perspective about the relative risk in using different transport systems, the rail industry could face a real crisis. There is a really chilling paragraph in the Uff-Cullen report which suggests that the two not-so wise men have failed in their basic task of adopting an informed outsider’s view. In a section about costs of safety systems, they say: “The interests of the public are represented most closely by HMRI and the Regulatory bodies and, in this Joint Inquiry, by the Passengers’ Group” (my italics).

Oh no, they aren’t. The Passengers’ Group is, by definition, a very narrow interest representing a very small number of people who have had a particularly bad experience of the railway. That does not make their views more valid than, say, the Rail Passengers’ Council or, indeed, the public at large represented by ministers or, for example, the House of Commons transport sub-committee. The views of the Passengers’ Group should, of course, be taken into account but not as a major component of “the interests of the public”.

There are countless other ways of spending £2-3bn more effectively. Digging tunnels under, or bridges over, every major level crossing in the country, for example, would save most of the 20 people killed on them every year at a much smaller cost. Remember, road safety schemes are only implemented if they cost less than around £200,000 to save a life, 150 times less than ETCS. Implementing 20mph zones in every residential area in the country would cut our appallingly high level of child road deaths. Outside the realms of transport, spending the money on anything from kidney machines to anti-smoking campaigns would save many more lives.

We all want a safer railway. And we all want a better railway. The report by Professor Uff and Lord Cullen will only deliver the former. That is why the railway industry must speak out with one voice against its core recommendation. This will not be easy. Arguing against safety improvements is rather akin to accusing the Queen Mother of adultery. But it must be done, even at the cost of a fierce public debate. If rail executives do not stand up now to this nonsense, the industry faces being saddled with unpalatable costs and terrible operational delays that will ensure a rise in road deaths as more people flee the slow and expensive trains, given that Virgin’s post-Hatfield fares rise is likely to be the first of many.

The industry needs to argue that ETCS should only be introduced as part of a wider investment in the network. Retro-fitting a lot of old lines and trains without a general refurbishment will skew investment into very unproductive safety systems that will not improve the journey experience for any passengers. The railway needs to counter Uff-Cullen with a worked-out 20-year programme of rolling refurbishment of major lines (for example, West Coast, East Coast, Great Western, Southern/Anglia) which will allow people and equipment to move across the country in a rolling coherent programme.

The Strategic Rail Authority must flesh out the details of such a plan in order to win over the public in what will be a controversial public debate. Its Strategic Agenda was a terrible wasted opportunity in this regard, a document which lacked any coherent thinking, and hopefully its plan, due in the autumn, will address these issues. In the meantime, the Railway Forum, with its new energetic Director General, Adrian Lyons, will also produce some coherent thinking on the way that safety investment must go hand-in-hand with enhancements. Otherwise we could end up with a very safe railway which no one uses.

CTRL – another project that’s not value for money

Almost unnoticed in all the hubbub about the railways in the past couple of weeks, the National Audit Office published a damning report* on the financing of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (RAIL 406).

I have always argued that the CTRL was a dubious project from an economic point of view. The level of its anticipated benefits have always been fiddled by governments eager to show that it is economically viable.

Not surprisingly, the report is highly critical of the original CTRL deal which allowed London and Continental to receive a chunk of the Eurostar service and trains for free in return for building the link, but then pulling out as passenger forecasts had been so over-optimistic. As the report puts it, “the private sector is paid for taking risk”. And yet, when the deal collapsed, it was the taxpayer who picked up the tab.

Although the second CTRL deal is thought to have a more robust structure, the NAO is still highly sceptical of the regeneration benefits. In effect, the Government lumped in £500m of ‘regeneration benefits’ which, though the report does not quite put it so starkly, was a figure plucked out of the air and the NAO ascribes zero value to them. As the report says, “the economic case for the link is debatable”. (Remember, these reports are always sent to the government department concerned for its comments and therefore are always a bit mealy-mouthed.)

Given the emphasis on Public Private Partnerships such as Sir Alastair Morton’s much-favoured Special Purpose Vehicles and the plans for the Tube, ministers and civil servants alike should read this report with care.

As a fan of the railways, it seems churlish not to support the CTRL but the dishonesty in the way that the project is justified cannot be tolerated. By all means build it, but accept that it is really a prestige project – what the French call a Grand Projet – built for national pride rather than for any sensible transport or economic reasons.

* National Audit Office, The Channel Tunnel Rail Link, The Stationery Office, £11.50.

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