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Debate Rail safety

Deaths on the roads far outstrip those on the railways, yet spending on rail safety is far higher than that on roads.

This week we ask: Are we spending too much money on rail safety?

Yes

Robert Gifford, executive director, Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety

In the cold light of day, it is very easy to say 'Yes' to this question.

After all, I haven't had to face the relative of someone killed in a train crash like those at Southall or Ladbroke Grove. I am not the Secretary of State for Transport responding to the aftermath of a high profile event.

Yet we must not to let emotions get the better of judgement.

Finance is a scarce resource.

Society needs to be sure that it is getting maximum benefit for investments made.

The statistical price for preventing a fatality on the roads is £1.14M. Obviously, I hope my own life would be worth far more to my relatives and friends, but a statistical value does give us a starting point when assessing whether road engineering schemes should go ahead.

The railways have rightly accepted the need for a higher value when dealing with fatalities occurring in train crashes.

After all, as passengers, we expect the train companies to take greater care of us.

Initially, the higher value was placed at £3.5M. Yet more recently, the Train Protection Warning System, now required by law, values a human life at over £10M. Now, the European Rail Traffic Management System goes even further, costing as much as £75M per life saved.

It may be right to expect a higher level of safety in a public transport system than we will tolerate behind the wheels of our own cars.

Perhaps we should expect train and coach operators to take greater care of us. What we need to know is why we are expecting this and what impact such an approach will have on financing the transport system.

In highway engineering, we can save lives for an investment of £100,000 with road humps, chicanes and roundabouts. With the costs of rail safety increasing day by day, we are likely to crowd out the small improvements that would benefit us all.

No

Richard Clifton, Health & Safety Executive

There is never a right time for any industry to slacken its efforts on safety.

Proper attention to safety is essential to achieve acceptable levels of performance.

The most successful enterprises are those where competent management takes safety issues in its stride and achieves safe, reliable, performance that meets customers' expectations.

Some of the biggest performance challenges for the rail network result from the consequences of safety lapses. These lapses may require enormous programmes to rectify past neglect (Hatfield) or take whole routes out of service at enormous cost and inconvenience (London's Central Line).

The safety record of the railway network has, like all other industries, improved over time with the benefit of continuous improvement from investment and better risk management.

Yet we still have a major catastrophic accident every 18 months or so. I want the rail industry to complete the TPWS installation programme, phase out slam-door trains, consider the potential for safety improvement when investing in infrastructure projects like realigning or changing the height of platforms and devote sufficient resource to safety management, including managing contractors.

Myths about excessive attention to safety are circulated in the industry - something which in itself suggests the focus is not sufficiently on safety improvement.

Safety law requires devoting managerial effort and financial resource to control risks to the extent of being 'reasonably practicable'. The meaning of these words, defined in case law, should ensure risks are properly controlled without disproportionate expenditure.

Travelling by train is safer than by car, which is what passengers expect - they put their lives in others' hands. The fact that other modes of transport are less safe is no excuse for ignoring safety on the railways.

Whether or not more should be invested in road safety, there should be no slackening of effort on safety in the railway industry.

Current spending is not too much.

The facts lIn 2000, 3,409 people were killed on the roads.

Half were car occupants, a quarter were pedestrians with over a fifth motorcycle or bicycle riders. The balance was made up of bus, coach and heavy goods vehicle occupants.

lNorth Yorkshire roads were the most dangerous with 165 killed or seriously injured in 1998. Nearby Redcar & Cleveland was safest with 36.

lLast year 32 people died on the railways, excluding suicides and trespassers, which amounted to an extra 275 deaths.

lThere has been a steady fall in the number of train incidents over the past four years.

lEighty seven per cent of all car casualties are front seat occupants.

lExcess or inappropriate speed is a main or contributory factor in one third of all collisions.

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