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Railwatch 073 - October 1997

Proceed with caution

The RDS has a wealth of experience, having proposed many route improvements and suggestions for line openings over the years. We are therefore well equipped to help the government in its development of a strategic rail authority.

Resisting the temptation to add my ten penn'th to that debate, I have returned to the subject of safety, mindful in any event that I am safety adviser to the society.

Railway safety to me splits nicely into two sections; namely, "the fear of vandalism and attack" on the one hand and "actual operating risk when travelling," on the other. However many trains you put on, however good the connections, if people are fearful, they will not use them.

Even I, a comparatively large man, at 63 years of age, no longer walk fearlessly down a lonely, badly lit corridor late at night. I need to see staff and television cameras, have adequate lighting and know that there are others about like myself.

The argument for making public transport as crime-free as possible is overwhelming. Apart from anything else more people will have the confidence to use it, more revenue will accrue, and less needs be spent on repairing the damage caused by vandals. Train operation is also made safer if seats and litter bins are not thrown on the track.

Safe interchange between the bus depot and the train station will also bring more revenue for bus operators and food vendors. In this climate, other commercial enterprises will move into the location. Many of these advantages bring in cash rewards to the operator and, since society is so obsessed with money, they have to be publicised. Private companies and Railtrack want to feel good when investing money. Good security has commercial value.

Turning to running the railway itself, my long-held view that the new railway, with its thousands of legal interfaces is a more difficult environment in which to manage safety, is not any more in doubt.

Why is it difficult? Because the form of privatisation chosen by the previous government is flawed, has created literally thousands of places where it is possible to have a misunderstanding. Any amount of contracts will not make the railway any the more safe.

Operational safety is dependent on a knowledgeable work force interacting one with another and not feeling threatened by hidden systems. The increase in the use of contractors, reliant upon a certification culture (sometimes a flawed certification culture) make incidents more likely. Likewise the haemorrhaging from the industry of experience and basic skills is a contributory factor. The basic skills of all railway men and women were carefully placed in every new recruit, but now there are no career railway men and women.

Safety training is barely adequate and now rarely standard across the industry so we have staff on platforms and on board trains who are only customer care people. For them the operating problems and the safety interface is something to walk away from.

Incidents abound within the system where if the basic skills training had still been in place the accident would either have not happened or would have been considerably lessened.

We all want the railways to succeed and safety is an essential ingredient in that success. So operational safety is fraught with difficulties. As with crime, there are a number of items that are needed to reverse the process.

More training of contractors' staff in basic railway knowledge, more health and safety staff at ground level to monitor and audit the safety cases and actual working practices of Railtrack, London Transport, the train operating companies and their contractors, more use of radio, all is needed in train operation. More money needs investing in simple safety infrastructure.

After the Clapham accident, enquiry chairman Sir Anthony Hidden made a number of recommendations, all of which were accepted by government. Next year, on the tenth anniversary of Clapham, people will be asking how much has been done and how much conveniently let slip.

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