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Rail investment remains vital safety factor

Comment

The tragic personal stories continuing to emerge in the aftermath of this week's rail crash must not cloud our thoughts over investment priorities for the nation's transport infrastructure. We must not tire of reminding the media, public and politicians that rail is still one of the safest ways to travel.

Harsh though it may sound, and without pre-judging the outcome of the police and safety investigation in Berkshire, ploughing huge amounts of cash into level crossing safety measures is unlikely to be revealed as the most effective way to boost transport safety.

This does not mean we should ignore any lessons from this latest - or any other - train crash. Clearly, issues have been raised about the design and operation of level crossings and all must be assessed against risk and action taken if appropriate.

But what we really do not need is another excuse for the government to take its eye off the crucial fact that greater investment is desperately needed across the whole of the UK's transport infrastructure.

Figures released this week by the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) highlight the potentially disastrous fall in civil engineering infrastructure activity, in particular in transport. It requires only a small jump in logic to conclude that this continued stalling by government over commitments to new road, rail and light rail projects is more of a threat to life than any level crossing.

Of course, investment in transport infrastructure is not just about enhancing public safety. But the fact is that better safety generally comes as a welcome companion to enhanced capacity or efficiency.

We saw, for example, how road deaths climbed in proportion to the increased car use following train service reductions after the Hatfield rail crash. We know that new public transport projects such as Crossrail, Manchester Metro and East London Line extension represent a serious alternative to car use and so make inherent contributions to safety. We also know that road improvement schemes such as that on the A303 at Hindhead are designed specifically to remove notorious congestion and accident black-spots.

As CECA points out, the public is unimpressed by the government's performance on transport improvement delivery since 1997. It quotes a recent YouGov poll which it says highlights 'a widespread perception among the electorate that the government had failed to deliver promised improvements to the road and rail network'.

It also noted this poll's finding that around half of those polled said increased transport investment would influence their voting decision.

All of which is good news for civil engineers. The public may at last be realising that a decent transport system can make the UK a better place to live.

Over the next six months we will move into General Election season and with it comes a golden opportunity for the profession to drive home our message of the value of investment in infrastructure - value to business, to the public and in terms of boosting public safety on our roads, railways and communities.

While it is vital we respond properly to the lessons of this week's rail crash, the profession must also respond to its wider social responsibility. And that starts with persuading the government to invest.

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