Rail 944: Media gets it wrong on Salisbury rail crash

The rail collision at Salisbury attracted the usual amount of over the top coverage from the media but that is expected given the rarity of such incidents. It is amazing that while the five daily deaths on the roads pass by unnoticed, a relatively minor collision between two trains with one serious injury results in front page news.

As usual, there were some real howlers especially in the early stages, but to be fair to the reporters these were mostly the fault of the information being given out by Network Rail. Virtually everything in a Network Rail statement issued a couple of hours after the crash was wrong. It said that a coach had ‘derailed’ after ‘hitting an object’ and that ‘the derailment knocked out all of the signalling in the area’. In the event the accident was a collision between two trains and there was no object in the tunnel. The suggestion that the signalling system had been knocked out by the incident was, frankly, bizarre in the extreme. Anyone with the remotest knowledge of railway signalling knows that it always fails safe, and, moreover, is very unlikely to be ‘knocked out’ by an incident in a tunnel.

Worse, on the Radio 4 Today programme the following day, Martin Frobisher, safety engineering director did not correct any of this when, by then, he must have known that misleading statements had been issued. Frobisher had the opportunity to debunk the notion once and for all that something had gone wrong with the signalling but failed to do so. As a result, in interviews I did that day, presenters were still asking about the possible failure of the signalling given that it would, indeed, be a very worrying situation. When incidents like this occur, openness and clarity should be the default mode.

Both Nigel Harris and I got some stick on Twitter (not difficult to attract) from people suggesting that we should not speculate about the accident and ‘leave it to the investigators’. I’m afraid that is a naive view because the media will speculate anyway, and those of us with some knowledge of the industry are able to correct obvious errors. I don’t claim to know everything and never make definitive statements that are not well sourced, but the phones start buzzing straight away after such an incident and reporters who are not transport specialists find it helpful to talk to us. Not to share our knowledge would be churlish.

The best example last week was when an overexcited Mail reporter rang me to say that apparently one of the trains had been involved in a crash in 2009 when a train derailed because of a landslide on the same line near Gilingham tunnel. Oh, I said, interesting coincidence, how did he know? He proceeded to read me out what was a headcode, 1L 53, and I had the happy experience of informing him of the difference between a headcode and the number of a coach. Of course, I also pointed out that even had it been the same coach, it would have been totally irrelevant but several of my more mischievous Twitter followers suggested I should have allowed the Mail to publish what was clearly a nonsensical story.

Secondly, both Nigel and I, and other Rail colleagues, have extensive contacts in the industry who are able to help us with background information provided ‘off the record’. Indeed, in a way such unofficial briefings to trusted media contacts are the way that accurate information is sometimes disseminated by companies reluctant to make definitive statements.

Third, however, and most importantly, the culture of the industry has changed for the worst. In the past British Rail was willing to accept fault for accidents and recognise likely failings immediately, allowing lessons to be learnt quickly. Now the immediate response is defensive and secretive, largely through fear of lawyers and impacts on share prices rather than a culture of transparency. As mentioned above, this rather secretive and defensive approach can cause genuine concern to rail passengers who are influenced by uninformed comment in the mainstream media and, of course, social media. By providing informed comment, rail journalists can help ensure the true story emerges more quickly.

I suspect that it was the egregious nature of the errors in the statement put out by Network Rail that ensured the Rail Accident Investigation Branch was quick off the mark by publishing its preliminary findings on the accident just three days after the accident. Rightly, it asks more questions than answers, but does highlight some aspects that need thorough investigation. It corrects the errors made by Network Rail which clearly needs to have its own investigation in to how such misleading statements were made to the media. It is right that the railway tries to respond quickly at these times, but not with clearly poorly informed statements.

The RAIB report rightly corrects the impression that the signalling in the area had ‘failed’ and confirms that the South Western train collided with the Great Western service after failing to stop at the red signal. Clearly rail conditions were poor, but the investigation will need to look at whether there were prior incidents that day and therefore if any warnings were issued. In particular, it will need to look at what speed the train was going as it approached the initial double yellow aspect, and whether it subsequently slowed down before approaching the subsequent yellow. The report found that ‘the driver initially applied service braking to slow the train on approach to the caution signal before signal SY31. Around 12 seconds after service braking started, the driver made an emergency brake demand’. There was then another emergency brake application from the Train Protection & Warning System, and this raises an interesting issue: as all good motorists know, if you are starting to skid, then it is best to release the brakes and apply them gently and repeatedly. Is this how the TPWS responded? Or is it a blanket brake application designed to give a deceleration of 12%g/

Clearly the speed at which the train was travelling is a crucial factor and here’s the key question: during the leaf fall season, extra time is added to many services in recognition of the need to drive more cautiously although it seems but from checking National Rail Enquiries, this appears not to be the case with this particular service. Therefore, if the train was travelling at a speed commensurate with the timetable and still got into difficulties with wheel adhesion, then will it be necessary to increase journey times across the board at this time of the year. That would not go down well with passengers.

This also requires the RAIB findings to be issued as soon as possible, even if it is through a second interim report rather than the full Monty. It is not as if wheel adhesion problems in the autumn are a new issue. Therefore if trains that are following the timetable are experiencing these issues widely, then operators need to respond quickly. On the other hand, if there were particular issues around the way this train was being driven, then that needs to be reported as soon as possible.

There was, incidentally, a telling picture on Twitter showing the site of the accident 40 years ago and now. The contrast could not be greater. Whereas in the past, there were a few small trees and shrubs in the area, now it is totally covered by foliage. The campaign in 2018 which led to much criticism of Network Rail’s tree felling policies and which attracted a kneejerk response from transport ministers is now looking, to say the least, faintly ridiculous.



Football special failure


A gold star to East Midland Trains for agreeing to hold the 22 35 train ex St Pancras on the night of the recent match between QPR and Nottingham Forest to allow the latter’s supporters to get home at a reasonable time. That showed the sort of flexibility which is often lacking in the complex structure of the privatised railway because of concerns over punctuality and subsequent penalties. This is effectively the last train of the day and therefore lots of fans took advantage of the offer.

There was only one problem. No one seemed to have told the staff on duty and the train left on time, leaving numerous fans either facing a night in London, or making a complicated journey which would get them to their destination in the middle of the night. Apparently there was a medical emergency which meant the manager who had agreed to the arrangement was not available. Anyway, A for effort, but D for achievement, but let’s hope that other operators show the same type of flexibility in the future in order to allow people to take trains rather than drive to such events.

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