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Reality check on risk


At first glance it's quite a funny story. The latest Thomas the Tank Engine TV series contains too many train crashes and are frightening young children away from rail travel, claims a psychology lecturer from Exeter University.

But on reflection the story does perhaps highlight some very serious issues for the railway. It seems that the modern Thomas the Tank Engine story lines are subliminally underlining the public's fears about safety on the railways.

The problem for the rail industry is that these fears are almost certainly unjustified - or at least out of proportion with the statistical reality.

Yet on the other hand the strength of feeling behind the need for absolute safety on the railway is similarly out of proportion with the realities of engineering risk management.

Figures presented at last week's ICE debate on rail safety highlighted that in 2001/2, 3,450 people died on the roads compared to 270 on the railways - of which 202 were suicides, 43 were trespassers, two were in cars and four were working on the line.

The rest died of natural causes.

And between 1999 and 2000 you were 100 times more likely to die on a bicycle than on a train.

But to the public watching pictures of the Ladbroke Grove or Potters Bar train crash, such statistics count for nothing. And as Professor John Uff, chairman of the recent Southall rail crash inquiry, explained during the same debate, it is still possible that a single train crash could occur at any time and was capable of killing over 200 people in one go.

So where should the line be drawn between reducing risk to passengers and running a service? It is a tough decision that Network Rail chief executive John Armitt wrestles with daily.

'When you get on a train you don't think that there are risks, ' he accepted this week.

'We have to be very conscious of that expectation and seek to minimise the risks.'

This means spending money of course and Armitt has also to be acutely aware of the return achieved for this spend. 'We cannot have safety at any cost, ' he insisted. 'We have to be willing to acknowledge that there is an economic cost to our decisions and that we put a value on life - yet people have difficulty understanding risk probability and value of life.'

And it is this last point which underlines the problems faced by engineers looking after infrastructure - we continue to operate in a different world to the public when it comes to risk assessment.

Take London Underground's Central Line. It is still closed six weeks after a non-fatal train derailment. The safe engineering answer is to immediately declare all the trains as potentially unsafe.

Clearly this is madness. Are these trains really more unsafe than the day before the crash?

Is the entire fleet of trains driving around with motors hanging off? Or did they simply need better management and more regular inspection and maintenance?

Risk management is not, after all, simply about identifying what is dangerous and stopping it - if so we'd have banned cars long ago. Risk management is about knowing what needs to be managed.

While Thomas and his mates will always have crashes, there is always a happy ending to reassure young viewers that all is well. In the real world this reassurance has to come from proper engineering management.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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