Do you get annoyed, when it rains or there are autumn leaves on the ground, that your railway station becomes polluted by so many posters and announcements advising you to watch your step, and warning you about the “event of weather”?
I imagine Simon Jenkins must get very irritated. In his latest drivel for the Guardian, Jenkins tells us that it’s impossible to make travel “safe”, and we shouldn’t try. He cites the example of the Santiago de Compostela train crash, in which 79 people died last month. An accident, which nobody intended to happen, and for which it would “not be sensible” to “seek fault”.
We must accept that accidents will happen, Jenkins tells us. Slips, trips and falls and catastrophic high-speed train crashes are inevitable, and if we try to stop them, we might merely make the problem worse. The same is true on the roads, he says, where reducing regulation, sharing space, and replacing instruction signs with ambiguity empowers road users to take more care.
But, as seems to be a habit, Jenkins rather picked the wrong example to prove his point. There’s a reason why I mentioned those apparently inane announcements about being careful not to trip over, and there’s a reason why our stations have become polluted by them. Slips, trips and falls now account for a majority of the serious injuries to staff and passengers on Britain’s railway, and resulted in half of the deaths in the 2012/13 operational year.
Think about that for a moment. A transport network carrying 1.5 billion passenger journeys at speeds now up to 140mph in vehicles with stopping distances measured in the kilometres under high-voltage power lines on complex tangles of steel rails over thousands of bridges and viaducts, all of which requires constant maintenance by a massive workforce using huge arrays of heavy machinery. And the biggest cause of serious injury and of death (aside from suicides and trespass) is falling over.
Four passengers died on the railway in 2012/13, and two members of staff died — though as with the single workforce fatality in the preceding year, one of those was in a motorway car crash on the way to a work site. The passenger fatalities were two trips, an assault, and one death at the “platform/train interface”. That is, two thirds of the fatalities on the railway had nothing to do with actually being on the railway, and could as easily have happened on a walk in the park — in fact, are probably more likely to happen on a walk in the park.
The fact is, far from accidents being inevitable, the Santiago de Compostela crash couldn’t happen here. Our signalling systems alone, not to mention the wider railway system and culture of safety, would not have allowed a driver to let his high-speed train travel so vastly overspeed into such a bend. That’s the exact sort of signalling that automatically protects and stops trains that Jenkins warns us against. And it works. Far from the 79 or more fatalities that Jenkins’s “safety systems are dangerous” thesis would predict, last year was the sixth consecutive one without a single fatal train crash. Zero people have died in a British train crash since a Glasgow-bound Pendolino came off the tracks at ill-maintained points in Cumbria early in 2007, resulting in an impressive back-flip by the lead car and a tumbling slide down the embankment by those following. And, astonishingly, just a single fatality of one elderly passenger, thanks to the strength and safety engineering of the modern carriages.
And as is always the case when there’s a British train crash — or even just a (not so) near miss — a thorough investigation followed, lessons were learned, investment was made in new technologies and working practices were revised to ensure that nothing like it could happen again.
Stopped clocks and even Simon Jenkins are right sometimes. We can learn a road safety lesson from a train crash. It’s just the exact opposite of the one Jenkins suggests. Accidents don’t just happen. We can stop them if we have the will.