Whistleblower on the railways

So the BBC has uncovered appalling breaches of safety in its investigative programme, Whistleblower. Sure, some of what it showed did not reflect well on the industry but to suggest, as it did in its trailers, that people should be wary of travelling on the railway given the risks it uncovered is outrageous.

The real story on rail safety is, of course, completely the opposite. Yes, more trackworkers have died in the past year than in recent times, but the bald statistics on rail safety for passengers in the past year are an amazing tribute to its improving record: there were over a billion rail journeys last year and not a single one result in the death of the passenger. Now that is a record to be proud of but which the media has not exactly splashed on.

That is not to condone anything that the BBC has uncovered. Sure there will be train crashes in the future. That is inevitable. But it is another matter to say that the railways are dangerous and risky. Professor Andrew Evans of Imperial College has shown that the rate of improvement of rail safety – a continuous trend since World War Two – has actually accelerated recently and he argues that far from making the railways less safe, privatisation has improved the industry’s record. This may well be a result of the fact that because of privatisation, every company involved in the industry had to draw up a safety case which had to be approved by safety regulators.

Evans argues that even if some of the four accidents since 1997 were caused by the way the industry was privatised, other factors, such as safety cases, have led to an overall improvement in the record. The implication is that other potential accidents, which may have happened under British Rail, did not occur because of those changes. It may be, too, that because the government was anxious to allay fears about the risks of privatisation, far more money has been spent on safety than would otherwise under BR.

My position is somewhat different. I argue, in my book Broken Rails, that all those accidents had some elements of privatisation as their cause and would not have happened otherwise. However, Evans’s argument that the railways are getting safer at a faster rate than before is irrefutable.

I often get asked to appear on programmes about rail safety or to help documentary makers uncover abuses in the industry. Indeed, there was definitely a ‘get the railways’ tendency among commissioners of documentaries at both the BBC and Channel 4 over the past couple of years and independent production companies were throwing together proposals willy-nilly. But few programmes got made precisely because the truth is rather different from the prejudice.

I even suggested that the real story is that over concerns with safety is strangling the industry and making so much of it so expensive or perform so badly that people resort to their cars instead, which of course have a much higher death rate. Now that would be a real good documentary but unfortunately, despite my suggestion, no one has picked up on the idea so far. But it is never too late. Is there anyone out there?

By the way, my new book, The Subterranean Railway – the story of how the London Underground helped create London – is due out on November 10th. It is already being listed on Amazon – at just £12.59 – and you place an order through them now.

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