Off the rails

Reactions to the crash at Ufton Nervet will make our transport system even slower.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

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The press was remarkably restrained after the terrible rail crash at Ufton Nervet in Berkshire on Saturday evening. There were no screaming headlines, no demands for government ministers’ heads to roll, no condemnation of Network Rail. It all seemed remarkably quiet and considered.

The following day’s headlines were perhaps more like it, but even they were simply reminiscent of the usual prurient tabloid fayre, with headlines such as ‘Suicide driver naked in car’ (1) or ‘The angel killed by the loner’ (2).

Generally, the event has been portrayed as a tragic accident, reminiscent, said the Independent, of ‘the accident at Selby three years ago, for which no one in the rail industry was to blame’ (3).

The similarities with Selby are in the way that the tabloids’ attention has been drawn to the personalities concerned. In Selby’s case it was Gary Hart, a man who fell asleep at the wheel resulting in an unfortunate series of coincidences that led to the biggest rail crash since 1967. In the latest incident, the papers have focused on Brian Drysdale, the driver of the Mazda 323 that was parked across the London to Plymouth main line. The Sun had an anonymous ex-‘close pal’ describing him as an ‘eccentric gay’. The Mirror has opened a hotline for people to ring in who knew (or thought they knew) him. ‘Brian didn’t sound gay’, observed colleague Philip Fogg, but, recalling his shadowy tendencies, Fogg added that ‘he could be unpleasant and sharp’ (4).

Like Selby, this accident is likely to be written up as an act of malicious recklessness. We may never know the truth – and the facts, to a certain extent, are of little consequence. Both crashes have resulted in a range of calls for more regulation and a re-elevation of the issue of safety, just when things seemed to be calming down. After all, no rail passenger deaths were documented in the latest 2002-2003 rail statistics.

However, unlike Selby there has been a word of caution after Ufton Nervet. The chair of the Commission for Integrated Transport, David Begg, warned that ‘it is important to resist hasty recommendations from knee-jerk responses’ (5). Undoubtedly wary of the costly and interminable series of inquiries spawned from the Selby, Paddington and Hatfield crashes, government ministers are also aware of the increasing contempt with which these investigations were viewed by passenger groups and public alike.

The inquiry machine will undoubtedly move into action. But more importantly, the issue of safety will be generalised on to all transport networks. As Begg says, ‘questions of rail safety need to be considered in the wider transport safety context’.

The fact that the Ufton Nervet crash happened on a railway crossing has led to immediate demands for a change to the way that the interface between roads and rail are handled. Leader of the RMT rail union Bob Crow has demanded that all level crossings on intercity lines be replaced with bridges or tunnels. ‘If we can spend millions of pounds building motorways, I can’t see why we shouldn’t spend money on tunnels of just 50 or 60 yards’, he said (6). Regardless of the fact that the publicly funded road network hasn’t grown significantly for three years or so, Crow’s demands have been rightly condemned as opportunistic nonsense.

Many have criticised the expense involved in Crow’s demands, as if that were sufficient to rubbish calls for improvement. But given that the first automatic half-barrier railway crossings were introduced in 1961 in Spath, Staffordshire (where early records show that the road traffic crossing the line included three horse drawn vehicles, two flocks of sheep and seven animals [unspecified]), it might be reasonable to suggest that upgrading the basic infrastructure be a sensible demand to improve general safety standards and the needs of a modern transport network.

But while the UK rail network is currently almost half the size that it was in 1961, yet facilitates twice as many passenger journeys, building a few more lines might be a more urgent priority. This isn’t even on the cards. Instead, we are not only playing catch-up with the existing network, we are focusing on many of the wrong problems.

Over the past seven years there has been a yearly average of 292 deaths on the railway. This figure includes around 23 rail passenger deaths – the remaining 269 or so were attributed to suicide or trespass. In the year 2000-2001, the figures peaked at 300 non-passenger related deaths. Presumably many of these were jumping off the type of bridges that Bob Crow wants to see built. (Note that Selby was caused by a Land Rover driving off a bridge, followed by much discussion about the need to redesign bridge guardings.) This can become a never-ending discussion about how best to brick up the contact between different modes of transport (and given that nearly 1500 people were killed after driving into immoveable objects in 2003, not even this is a guarantee of safety) (7).

The statement by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) back in February 2004, that ‘the use of level crossings contributes the greatest potential catastrophic risk on the railways’, has been widely quoted (8). But this only indicates that the issue of safety was being looked into in the normal way. Similarly, the Rail Safety and Standards Board had also raised inherent problems that had been thrown into sharp relief by the Selby disaster, stating that: ‘It is against this background that targeted initiatives have been taken to reduce the risk associated with level crossings at automatic crossings but latterly at passive crossings.’ (9) Regardless, then, of the fact that so few people are killed at level crossings (14 were killed in the decade up to 1994), the possibility of impact with a vehicle on the railway had exercised the minds of rail safety experts, and presumably it was just unfortunate that this accident happened before improvements were set in train.

However, the principal motivation for introducing automatic half barriers in the first place was to cater for the increasing impatience of car users waiting for the old-fashioned steam locomotives to dawdle past. Cutting the amount of time for barriers to open fitted into the ethos of the new car age (10). Speed mattered. Today, it is the reverse. Measures will inevitably be introduced as a result of the crash and HSE investigations that prioritise a mythical safety standard at the expense of speed of transit. Safety as a driver of transport policy can only raise the issue of risk aversion, and with it, the need to exercise slow considered precaution. In this respect, the calm voices of commentators are reflections of the slower times to come.

We fail to realise at our peril that investment in speed, convenience and comfort inevitably gives rise to improvements in safety; whereas prioritising improvements in safety does nothing for speed, comfort or convenience. And unfortunately, given the fact that nothing could reasonably be done to prevent such an accident at Ufton Nervet, it will probably do nothing for our safety either.

While Bob Crow pontificates about building underpasses and overpasses, the Guardian suggests that technological aids such as radio links could improve the connection between train driver and signal boxes and hence the chances of minimising accidents due to lack of communication. However, the paper cautioned that ‘for this to happen, the public would have to be less opposed than it is to the radio masts that have to be erected’ (11). With such a wide-ranging set of ideas about what is safe and what isn’t, the consequences of the Ufton Nervet inquiry – an inquiry into an unfortunate accident – could actually lead to an even greater sense of hopelessness with, and unease in, our reasonably safe transport system.

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Transport

(1) The Sun, 9 November 2004

(2) Daily Mirror, 9 November 2004

(3) Railways, roads and avoiding an over-reaction, Independent, 8th November 2004 (subscription required)

(4) He Left Work, Made A Call, Parked Up and Waited To Die, Daily Mirror, 9 November 2004

(5) Don’t blame the railway industry, David Begg, Guardian, 8 November 2004

(6) Frantic attempt to stop the train – then utter devastation, Guardian, 8 November 2004

(7) Table 19: ‘Road casualties in Great Britain in 2003: Annual Report’ DfT September 2004

(8) Allan Sefton, Director of Rail Safety, HM Railway Inspectorate, HSE Annual Report on Railway Safety 2003/04

(9) The UK Approach to Managing Risk at Passive Level Crossings’ A Nelson, Railway Safety. 2001

(10) see Steaming ahead, by Austin Williams

(11) An avoidable tragedy, Guardian, 9 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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