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Debate Rail safety

In the wake of the Selby rail crash, rail safety has again been the focus of a national public debate.

This week we ask: are we expecting too much of our railways when it comes to safety?


There is a completely safe railway - one that runs no trains, has no passengers, and allows no one on to its infrastructure. One cannot operate a completely safe railway any more than any other type of transport system.

We need to get safety into perspective. I cringe when someone says 'safety is paramount'. If that is so, why do we continue to run trains? No one would be killed on the railway if we didn't.

'Safety at all costs' is a statement that should be avoided.

The drafters of the Health & Safety at Work Act recognised that there are financial limits to the steps that can be taken to improve safety, hence the phrase 'reasonably practicable'.

The task for the railway industry is to reduce the risk to a level that is 'reasonably practicable' - that takes account of cost and the current technology available.

If the cost of providing a safe railway is so great that fares have to rise considerably to fund it, then more people will select the less safe means, resulting in more deaths.

It is hard for the families of the dead and injured to be dispassionate about the cost of safety, but railway industry staff must be if we are to ensure the correct balance, which minimises death and injury for all forms of transportation.

We must reduce risks by practicable means such as better training, on the job competence assessment, improved culture as well as hiding behind expensive technical systems.

A great deal could be accomplished using the former as the starting point. It is also important for us to reconsider carefully the benefits of life extension of the asset against renewal to ensure that we are getting the balance correct with regard to the integrity of the infrastructure. How many times can we extend the asset life safely?


'Safety is paramount' is the rail passenger representative's cride-coeur. But why is this?

Rail passengers have long enjoyed the highest safety standards. The most appalling accidents have been suffered on rare occasions too. This rarity has, however, depended not on good fortune but on painstaking, blame-free investigations; continuous research and development into preventative measures; steady implementation of proven technology; culture, pride and professionalism; and as a result rail has become 10 times safer than car travel.

As Professor Evans of London University has demonstrated, rail safety improved slowly but steadily until 2000. Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield brought the improvement to a halt. When the study includes Selby, it is likely to show the trend is deteriorating.

Passengers show a mature understanding of the remote residual risk of rail travel. Other than on the route directly affected, passenger levels have not fallen in the wake of recent accidents, including Hatfield - before, that is, Railtrack's over reaction and imposition of widespread speed restrictions.

Passengers' judgment is, however, sensitive and potentially volatile. If the new rail industry delays new safety systems on cost grounds; uses safety issues as a pretext to delay enhanced services unduly; persists in challenging Health & Safety Executive orders in court; and fails to act promptly on an industrywide basis, then passengers will identify and rightly condemn those conducting their business accordingly.

For track and train workforces, the safety record is worse. Accidents involving trespass and vandalism have reached a shocking 60% of the total.

All aspects of rail safety must therefore continue to be researched, to improve safeguards for all on and near the railway. Passengers recognise and conditionally accept setbacks.

They also expect sustained efforts to ensure the highest possible standards. Only a zero accident policy can deliver this. In the inherently risky business of rail travel at speed, this is what we mean by 'safety is paramount'.

The facts

Rail travel is statistically safer than travelling by car, bicycle or walking.

Over the next seven years Railtrack says it plans to re-lay 2,190km of rails, 5,484km of ballast and 4,707km of sleepers.

Recommendations from the Lord Cullen inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove crash - due later this year - are expected to have massive implications for safety on the railways.

Figures published last year by Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate showed that the fatality rate of 33 on the network was the highest since 1988 - due mostly to the Ladbroke Grove accident where 31 died.

Railtrack is committed to fitting of the Train Protection Warning System across the network by 2003.

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