Rail 418: Safety should be led by the statistics not the editorials

Most of the deaths on the railway last year involved suicides and trespass, not that you’d notice from the way the HSE presented the statistics in its latest rail safety bulletin. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR believes the report is yet another example of how the policy-makers have got their priorities over safety badly skewed.

Astaggering 320 people died on the railways last year. That’s over six per week but you would hardly notice this terrible toll from the Health and Safety Executive statistics in the Railway Safety Statistics Bulletin 2000/01 released earlier this month.

This is because the vast majority of these deaths, 300 to be precise, are in the category of ‘suicides and trespassers’. This phenomenon has always attracted far less attention than it deserves. It is not possible entirely to separate out the suicides from the trespassers but probably more than half are people killing themselves. The issue is not just one of the terrible toll, but also the disruption each incident causes as well as the appalling distress for the train drivers involved in them.

Yet the HSE’s bulletin tucks away the table outlining these statistics at the bottom of page two with barely any commentary. When, at the press conference to launch the bulletin, I asked Vic Coleman, the Chief Inspector of the Railways, why so little attention was paid to this issue compared with, say, Signals Passed at Danger, he accepted that it was a good question but said that the HSE tended to respond to ‘public concern’ and this was much greater for an issue such as SPADs than it was for, say, deaths of trespassers and suicides.

This troubles me and raises an issue which is at the heart of one of the fundamental problems with the railway today, the distorted priorities around safety. The question is: Should the HSE really be responding to ‘public concern’ in determining its priorities? I have already noted in a previous column that Lord Cullen, in his report, makes the ludicrous suggestion that the groups formed by the relatives of victims and survivors best represent the public interest as far as issues of railway safety are concerned.

As I wrote at the time, that is pure tosh. The survivors and relatives are people who have had a particularly bad experience of the railways and, while their views should be taken into account, they do not represent the public interest. All sorts of other bodies have a better claim to that, ranging from the Rail Passengers’ Council to the House of Commons Transport (sub) Committee.

Mr Coleman’s suggestion that the HSE pursue areas where there is most ‘public concern’ is a similar error. Indeed, it is not so much public concern as the views of those who shout loudest; as well as the relatives’ and survivors’ groups, it is the tabloids with their catastrophe pornography, their lurid coverage of rail accidents, that make the running.

There is, in fact, very little public concern about rail safety, except in the aftermath of accidents. Of course, a few people say they would rather drive because of the risks of rail travel, but there is no accounting for sheer stupidity. Next time you are in a train, ask a dozen people in your carriage about their concerns over rail travel and I bet £5 that none of them will raise, unprompted, the issue of safety. They will all be concerned with punctuality, reliability, dirty trains, stroppy staff, overcrowding and so on. But not safety.

That is why I want Mr Coleman and the HSE to pursue areas which he and his organisation reckon are important, and not respond to what a Daily Mail leader writer has managed to persuade his readers to worry about.

This may sound arrogant and undemocratic, but, in fact, it is merely being honest. I am not suggesting we return to the days – a mere three decades ago – when we left it all to the ‘experts’. But we should not go to the other extreme where organisations such as the HSE slavishly follow a muddled public agenda.

Mr Coleman should ignore public concern and look at his statistics. If the HSE paid as much attention to the deaths of trespassers and suicides as it is currently paying to SPADs, the number could be reduced. First, you need information: Where and when do incidents happen? What are the types of people involved? Are there trends relating to specific times of the year or particular lines? And so on. It is, indeed, not unlike SPADs. They are relatively rare events scattered through the network but research will reveal patterns which could lead to long-term reductions. Given that the number of deaths represents ten Ladbroke Grove crashes a year, surely a lot of effort should be put into this work.

This is all part of the distorted priorities on safety which are causing untold damage to the rail industry. According to industry sources, one of the reasons for the continued bad performance on punctuality is the extra emphasis on safety which has become a feature of the industry following Hatfield. Conservative (with a small c) decisions on safety are being taken in various circumstances, leading to trains being taken out of service, unnecessary speed restrictions and delays while checks are carried out.

In the long term, too, things are looking bleak. The continued search for a 100% safe railway is likely to lead to the fitting of the European Train Control System on top of the Train Protection and Warning System (which bizarrely is being fitted on Chiltern Line, already protected by Automatic Train Protection) at a cost which is unlikely to see any change from £5 billion. Lord Cullen and Professor Uff seemed to think this was OK because the Government is footing the bill.

In an excellent contribution to a consultation by the HSE on rail safety regulation, the Institute of Logistics and Transport raises this issue and argues that the implications of a zero tolerance to accidents policy means that completely disproportionate amounts of money are being spent on rail safety compared, say, with road accident prevention measures. If, the ILT says, the Government pursues such a policy, then it must pay for it. More sensibly, however, the ILT suggests that the HSE, the Government and the railway industry must address the issue of “seemingly less and less realistic demands being placed on the railways in respect of safety regulation”. Otherwise, the financial burden on the railways will lead to a long-term decline.

Indeed. It is time the railway companies and their executives stuck their collective heads above the parapet on this issue. The longer they remain silent, the more likely that the railway will be burdened with costs which will dominate the investment in the industry for a decade or more, instead of spending the money on modernisation and enhancements. Come on, chaps, be brave. Say, as the ILT suggests, that a zero tolerance railway is a nonsense and that spending billions on schemes that will save a handful of – theoretical – lives is madness. The publication of Lord Cullen’s Part Two report on September 20 should be an opportunity to start to go public on this difficult issue.

Too many stations or not enough?

Whenever one of Beeching’s closed stations is slated for reopening, there are loud cheers among railway supporters. The cost of such developments has soared post-privatisation and the rate has slowed from around 14 a year to eight.

But are such additions to the network always such good news? Davis Smith, who runs the Western RAILS consultancy based in Warminster, has his doubts. He feels, for example, that the Strategic Rail Authority’s plan to reopen Corsham between Chippenham and Bath at a cost of some £2.3m, shared between the local authority and the SRA, is misguided. He says that the reopened station will not take HSTs but only “local services running between Bristol and Oxford that provide a very patchy service and are often cancelled”. Moreover, he adds, the extra stop will delay existing users of the services.

Is this a good way to spend scarce resources? Even the Corsham campaign’s website accepts that only between 258 and 308 people will use the station each day. Mr Smith goes further, suggesting that some stations such as St Denys, near Southampton, and Dilton Marsh near Westbury merely generate so little traffic that they would be best closed down since they take up valuable capacity which could be used for longer-distance trains or freight.

The opposite view comes in a recently published pamphlet, Beeching in reverse*, by the long-time campaigner for rural railways, Paul Salveson. He suggests there is plenty of scope for reopenings on the rail network and that these should be explored. For example, he suggests there are a number of towns such as Leigh and Skelmersdale in Lancashire, and Blyth and Washington in the North East, with populations of 20,000 that could be quite easily reconnected to the rail network. Like the Corsham campaigners who point out that the closure of local military bases has affected the local economy, he argues that the regeneration benefits of reopening stations help many more people than just those who use the railway. A station is a key link to the outside world.

In fact, I’m not sure whether Dr Salveson and Mr Smith are really in such strong disagreement. In his pamphlet, Dr Salveson makes the key point that while the climate for reopenings has recently improved, “there is no strategy at either the regional or national level for a co-ordinated approach to reopenings”. It may well be that Corsham would fit in with a coherent policy, but the haphazard approach towards the issue by Government means that we will never know.

Certainly, as ever, the Strategic Rail Authority has not lived up to the S in its name. Surely, in two years it could have come up with some notion of when it considers rural stations are viable or not and whether a reopening is worthwhile? Let’s hope that under new leadership, it starts to examine these questions. Clearly, with the likes of Dr Salveson and Mr Smith, there is plenty of external expertise to call upon.

* Available from Transport Research and Information, Brian Jackson Centre, New North Road, Huddersfield HD1 5JP.

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