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Railwatch 076 - July 1998

Learning safety lessons

Here we go again. I have to say: I told you so and no one listened. I try not to be too smart about the past, but whether it be about safety, train performance or customer satisfaction, it is the same old story.

"Passengers have a right to expect performance to improve year on year," says Franchise Director John O'Brien. In fact punctuality worsened on 35 routes in the year up to March and improved on only 17.

Last month the new Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways Vic Coleman warned that overly liberal interpretations of the rules would not be tolerated. Same message, different civil servant.

Incidentally let us congratulate Vic on his promotion. Here we have a man who will not toady to the government of the day.

The statistics from the Franchising Director provide more evidence of the failure of the privatised railway to deliver anything like the service that was promised. All the players however blame each other. It is essential that the Government restores both public service ideals and the network concept, hopefully with its White Paper on transport which we await. It is easy to blame Virgin or Stagecoach, Silverlink or Great Western but that would be unfair. The real blame lies with the previous government which hurried through ludicrous systems which are both less safe and less efficient than the much criticised BR.

Some have made fortunes but that is largely irrelevant. The money is not so important as getting a railway that can be part of an integrated transport network and help prevent children falling prey to asthma and the other effects of road pollution.

We do not have time for recriminations. We must put things right as soon as possible. At present, we do not have a network of connecting services any more, just trains to different destinations from the same station!

One sad manifestation of the new set-up is foolish outpourings from public relations people. We had this outrageous statement attributed to a Railtrack spokesperson following the recent accident at Cannon Street: "A driver has run a red light."

We spent 100 years trying to get our descriptions of accidents correct, taking care not to apportion blame until after an inquiry. Train drivers, unlike motorists, can gain nothing but death and injury by "running red lights".

As the collision at Clapham proved almost 10 years ago, technical problems with signalling cannot be discounted. A signal failure often results from human error anyway. To dismiss it as a technical problem could be seen as a way of protecting the engineers who are already well protected. Thorough testing of the signalling must take place rather than allowing spokespersons to use ill-informed phrases.

Run a red light indeed!

It is also possible for signallers to create situations that can lead drivers astray. This is particularly relevant where signalling is very complex, with many signals in close proximity, as it is between London Bridge and Cannon Street.

If it is ultimately established that one of the trains did pass a signal at danger, that should be the start of the inquiry process, not the conclusion. We know only too well from the history of incidents on the railway that if one person can make a mistake, so can another at a later date with perhaps more serious consequences.

I remember when London Bridge was resignalled in 1976 that we led a driver into a trap with the altered running lines and with a single yellow signal out of the platform towards a gantry of signals.

With complex signalling, an honest competent workforce, and a signal engineer renowned for his integrity, solutions were worked out from open debate.

That is in great contrast to the culture of today. Too many people are at the dangerous interface between train and track who are insufficiently trained to be there.

The Government needs to ensure that the strategic rail authority has the power to set standards and that the new chief inspecting officer has adequate staff to audit those standards.

Only by a deep understanding of all the factors involved can safety be retained and enhanced.

Peter Rayner

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