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Wednesday 8 February 2012

How Safe Can You Get?

Travelling by train is, statistically, far safer than travelling by car – in terms of distance travelled, around ten times safer – but some persist in pushing the line that somehow The Railway does not care about safety, or at least that it does not take it seriously enough. This is the angle being taken by Dominique Jackson at the Mail, where she stresses “More must be spent to make our railways safer”.

Ms Jackson was on board the train involved in the 2000 Hatfield derailment, so unlike me she has first hand experience of what happens when things go wrong. But what she does not do is remind readers that the only fatalities were in the restaurant car, which impacted an overhead line support, which in turn opened up the vehicle and allowed its occupants to be thrown out.

Modern rolling stock is built to far higher standards than that in days gone by: Hatfield was caused by a broken rail, the train was travelling at 117mph, and four people died. In 1967 at Hither Green, a broken rail derailment at just 60mph led to the deaths of 49 passengers. On coach design and construction, safety has been much improved, and money has indeed been spent.

Moreover, in the past seven years, the number of on-board passenger accident fatalities has been just one – at Lambrigg in 2007, when a Virgin Trains Pendolino was derailed. Here, the Italian built coaches all held firm, but it was unfortunate that one passenger died later from injuries sustained due to being thrown about as the vehicle came off the tracks.

Ms Jackson tells of all those level crossings, and yes, there are a lot of them, particularly in flat terrain, and especially where there are rights of way and the need for farmers (for instance) to access their land. But here, there is a law of diminishing returns: there is the potential to spend limitless amounts of money on crossings used only on occasion, or by those already familiar with the need for vigilance.

She also cites the figure of 45 people killed on the railway since Hatfield, but that includes those killed in level crossing accidents – including road vehicles that shouldn’t have been there. It also includes track workers. The comparable figure for the first decade after railway nationalisation in 1948 is of a far greater magnitude: in those ten years, there were 332 deaths excluding track workers.

And in recent years, there has been a purge of older trains, especially in the South of England, and the number of carriages with slam doors has been reduced significantly. Platforms have been raised to make boarding and alighting easier. Lighting has been improved. There may be disquiet over fare levels, and some will always find fault with comfort. But no-one should doubt the commitment to safety.

As such, I hope Ms Jackson will give the train another chance, and soon.

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