Don’t put safety first

Potters Bar crash: how the culture of fear paralyses Britain.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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‘”Oh no, not again. Can’t we ever get anything right?”‘ So one UK newspaper summed up the likely public response to the train crash at Potters Bar just outside of London, on Friday 10 May (1).

Oh no, not again. Can’t we ever witness a tragedy on the tracks without turning it into some grand moral fable about the terrible state of the trains, the UK, the world and the universe? That was my reaction to the breast-beating and soul-searching that greeted the Potters Bar tragedy before the casualties had even been counted.

In Britain today, the train exists less as a mode of transport than as a handy metaphor for everything that is wrong with post-Millennial UK. In the twisted metal of a train crash, we are encouraged to see the warped priorities of our nation’s soul.

But let’s give it a rest with the poetry. In the reaction to Potters Bar – as in the reaction to previous recent rail disasters in Hatfield, Hertfordshire and Selby, Yorkshire – we need to get real first. The Potters Bar crash, in which the last carriage of a high-speed train derailed and slew on to the station platform, was spectacularly destructive; that seven people died was tragic.

Beyond this, how much more needs to be said about the event? The endless TV footage, photographs, diagrams showing how points work, eye-witness accounts, tales of commuter woe as subsequent trains are cancelled or re-routed – none of this will make the tragedy un-happen, or bring those people back to life.

It looks most likely that this event was an accident. And on a railway – any railway – accidents happen.

The trouble is that, in the UK 2002, accidents are not allowed to happen – especially not on the railways. ‘Not again!’ screamed the front page of the Daily Mail, the day following the crash. ‘Safe? You must be bloody joking, Byers’, barracked the Daily Mirror, referring to the beleaguered transport secretary Stephen Byers. The Guardian headlined ‘Another disaster on the tracks’, while the Daily Telegraph went for ‘Carnage on the Hatfield line’. All these references to previous recent train disasters give one clear message: that the railways are dangerous, that their first priority should be to be safe, and that something has gone very very wrong.

Are the railways dangerous? No. In terms of deaths per distance travelled, travelling by rail is still many times safer than travelling by road, bike, motorbike or on foot. Since 1988, 117 people have been killed in train crashes (2) – which, when you consider that there are about two billion rail passenger journeys in a year, makes your chances of dying on a train journey minuscule. And while the crashes of recent years have been quite horrendous, the numbers of casualties are small compared to the hundreds that died in major train crashes in the past (See Don’t panic button).

Should safety be their first priority? No. The first priority of a rail system should be to transport people from A to B. It’s all very well for the leader writers on the Observer to headline an editorial ‘We have a right to rail safety’, and to demand that Network Rail, the proposed successor to the current track administration company Railtrack, ‘devotes sufficient resources to providing in-house the maintenance, management, engineering skills and necessary security which our rail system needs so desperately’ (3).

The notion of a ‘right to safety’ is a nonsense. How could anybody possibly guarantee such a ‘right’? (Maybe somebody at the Observer realised how daft this headline was, because the online edition later renamed its leader article ‘Labour has to share the blame’.) Short of closing the UK’s rail network completely, nothing will make it 100 percent safe, because nothing ever is.

Has something gone very very wrong? Well, yes. But we have to distinguish between the reality of the UK rail system, and the broader culture of fear that surrounds it. And unless we want to end up in a fully pedestrianised Britain, all those using Potters Bar as a springboard for a hyperbolic, paranoid discussion about the problem with the trains/the tracks/the transport minister need to recognise that any solutions to Britain’s train problem that are proposed in this climate will only make the reality worse.

As Austin Williams has previously argued on spiked, the UK’s rail problems are a consequence of chronic under-investment and the incoherence and fragmentation introduced with privatisation. Much is made out of how Britain’s rail network is ‘the worst in Europe’, but that is because Britain spends far less. Switzerland, for example, is lauded for running ‘one of the world’s best railways’ – yet the Swiss government invests the equivalent of 50 percent of the entire UK budget on a network that is only 15 percent of the size of the UK network. (See Facts about the tracks, by Austin Williams.)

When then Tory prime minister John Major privatised the railways in the mid-1990s, he created a monster, of conflicting interests between those companies running the tracks and those running the trains, between the priorities of business, government, consultants, regulators and commuters. This accounts for the incoherence of the way the rail network is managed; crucially, it means that no one body holds responsibility for the network as a whole. When Railtrack finally collapsed, New Labour’s strategy – to put the company into administration – has only diffused responsibility further, and compounded the problem. As Williams says, ‘all pretence of a unified national rail network is disappearing fast’ (4).

Consequently, we have a rail system that fails on the basics – getting people from A to B. But rather than having a sober, rational discussion about what the problem is and how it might best be sorted out, tragedies like the Potters Bar crash are used as a metaphor for the idea that Britain ‘can’t get anything right’. And the rail industry gets blamed for things that cannot possibly be its fault.

The Daily Mirror on Saturday headlined its editorial, ‘The deadly legacy of neglect’. The rant continued: ‘Paddington, Hatfield, Selby and now Potters Bar. Each one destroying lives, leaving grieving families. And each one with the same cause – the state of the railways.’ (5) Hello? The Selby crash was caused by a man falling asleep at the wheel of his car, which careered off a bridge on to the railway track, in the path of an oncoming train. What did ‘the state of the railways’ have to do with this?

In fact, all the recent rail accidents had very different causes, and happened about a year apart from each other. But they are all listed as one long catalogue of disaster, as though nobody ever survives a journey by rail. In this, we have left the territory that should be covered by news reports, and hurtled into the murkier world of apocalypse and doom. It’s as if we wait for another rail tragedy to act as confirmation of our worst fears, and when one happens we rewrite history to present it as a disaster in the making. The actual causes of the incident recede into insignificance – all that matters is that somebody, somewhere ‘learns a lesson’. But what lessons are there left to learn?

Following the Hatfield crash of 2000, a major safety review ensured that trains were slowed down and passengers inconvenienced for months and months. Commuters suffer the worst of both worlds – a lousy train service, within which accidents still happen. The moral that has been drawn from Potters Bar is that Railtrack has not learned the lesson that more attention needs to be paid to safety. Can we really say that? It now emerges that the track had only just undergone a maintenance check. Do we draw from this the conclusion that we need to double-check the safety-check – all at a huge cost – or do we remember that we live in the real world, and that there is more at stake than this?

‘If the cause of the Potters Bar crash turns out to be vandalism, for example, it would be outrageous to denounce Railtrack for what happened yesterday’, states the Guardian editorial of 11 May. ‘But a broken rail or a malfunction of the points – even the failure to observe the lessons learned at…recent accidents – would be another matter and would give rise to a stretching indictment.’ (6)

Such an attempt to draw a reasonable line between what can be blamed on the railways and what cannot only draws attention to the evil omnipotence that Railtrack is now supposed to hold. You can’t blame the company for teenagers sneaking on to the tracks with spanners (damn!) – but you can castigate it to the ends of the Earth for failing to guarantee what cannot be guaranteed: the total absence of mechanical failures and accidents.

This relentless bashing of Railtrack, like the endless carping at transport secretary Stephen Byers, is utterly corrosive. It replaces a sensible, practical standard – safety – with an impossible, irrational demand – safety first. And by setting up a demand that is impossible to fulfil, it replaces responsibility and accountability with blame. If the measure of a rail system is absolute safety, it is always doomed to fail. If it is doomed to fail, how can anybody be responsible for ensuring that it does not?

Moreover, the orthodoxy of safety first eschews all the other priorities that an advanced society should have for its railways, such as the provision of high-speed trains that run often and on time, and that are faintly affordable. When something like Potters Bar happens, people often point to the under-investment in UK railways as a cause. Yet the massive gap between rail investment in Britain and in the rest of Europe leads to differences in punctuality, reliability and speed – not safety. Europe’s railways tend to be better on almost every count, but their safety record is comparable to the UK.

The demand for safety first ignores all this. When safety is made the top priority, the only thing that matters is that nothing goes wrong – and the only way that nothing can go wrong is if nothing is ever done in the first place.

This is where our culture of fear becomes, quite literally, paralysing. Those who run the railways, in business or government, have little incentive (or money) to provide a decent train system, when they are pushed to throw all their energies at showing that they take safety seriously. And if those who depend upon these trains for transportation from A to B continue to add their voices to the chorus demanding safety first, they should recognise the consequences of their arguments, and stay at home.

Read on:

Off the rails, by Austin Williams

Facts about the tracks, by Austin Williams

Training to complain, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-proposals: Transport, by Austin Williams

(1) Blood on the tracks, Guardian 11 May 2002

(2) linkable text

(3) Labour has to share the blame: The public has a right to feel safe, Observer 12 May 2002

(4) Off the rails, by Austin Williams

(5) ‘The deadly legacy of rail neglect’, Daily Mirror, 11 May 2002

(6) Blood on the tracks, Guardian 11 May 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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