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Debate: ATP

The government is committed to introducing automatic train protection (ATP) on the UK rail network by 2008 but there is growing concern that the enormous cost could be better spent elsewhere on the network. This week we ask:

Does automatic train protection represent good value for money?


Rod Muttram Chief executive Railway Safety

Serious accidents on Britain's railways are, thankfully, comparatively rare - but when they happen the consequences can be catastrophic. Since 1997, Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Great Heck have claimed 52 lives with many more serious injuries. These are not huge numbers, representing less on average than deaths on the roads, but the industry has a legal and moral duty to strive for improvement. Society rightfully expects us to learn from accidents and do something to prevent the same cause leading to another.

Signals passed at danger (SPADs) have been a significant cause of major train accidents.

The industry has done a huge amount to reduce the frequency of SPADs but a point has been reached where only an automatic system can deliver further significant improvement.

That is why I sponsored the development of the Train Protection Warning System (TPWS) which will reduce the risks from SPADs by 70%. TPWS installation will be completed in 2004 but is already delivering benefits with several potential accidents avoided.

TPWS should have been a comparatively good safety investment. Regulatory intervention and reactions to Ladbroke Grove increased the cost by a factor of at least four with no significant corresponding safety benefit.

Automatic train protection based on European Standards (known as ERTMS) will bring further benefits. It is wrong to evaluate ERTMS just as a safety system. Its more sophisticated forms offer a modern train control system that puts the signal where it belongs - in the cab. In the 21st century should high speed trains continue to be controlled by coloured lights on poles?

What we must avoid is excessive regulatory action to increase the speed and scope of early fitment. This would increase the use of less capable forms of ERTMS, adding cost and reducing capacity. Any perceived or claimed safety benefits would be illusory.


Robert Gifford Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety

The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) is a registered charity with a charitable objective 'to promote transport safety legislation to protect human life'. We aim to inform politicians, encouraging them to decide policy on the basis of evidence and research rather than anecdote and intuition.

To urge caution towards a proposed safety measure must then sound rather strange: how could anyone possibly suggest that a technical system that would prevent trains going through red signals does not represent a positive way forward for railway safety?

The installation of Automatic Train Protection (ATP) was a recommendation from the hidden report into the Clapham train crash in 1989. Having accepted this, British Rail initiated a trial involving high-speed trains between Paddington and Bristol and suburban trains leaving Marylebone for Aylesbury and Bicester. The aim was to ensure that ATP could work across the network in different operating conditions.

By now, therefore, we know that ATP can work. In the aftermath of both the Southall and Ladbroke Grove rail crashes, we also know that lives could have been saved with its fitment. But we also know the approximate cost per life saved - more than £14M - and that, over the same period, other safety measures have brought better results. The programme of installing central locking on trains - preventing passengers from leaving before the train comes to a halt - has seen the number of people killed in this way fall from 19 per year in the early 1990s to two by the end of the decade.

The debate about ATP raises very serious questions for those involved in public policy. The Rail Inspectorate has argued that the rail industry should adopt the approach of getting risk as low as reasonably practical. Shifting the goal posts somewhat, it now appears to demand responses to 'societal concerns' to make the industry go the extra mile for safety. But with any safety measure, someone has to pay.

If, in this case, it is the travelling public, many may decide to go by car, thereby exposing themselves and others to greater levels of risk. Hardly a positive outcome for the overall safety of the transport system.

The facts lUnder automatic train protection, trains will stop automatically if a driver goes through a red signal.

lLord Cullen and Professor Uff's inquiry, set up after the Ladbroke Grove train crash in October 1999, makes 39 recommendations to reduce the number of SPADs.

lThe inquiry, which reported in March, recommends that all trains travelling over 160km should be fitted with automatic train protection by 2008.

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