It's easy to say nothing has been done. But that ignores the evidence

Comment

The Hatfield crash has raised concerns yet again about the safety of travel by rail among a large section of the public. Several criticisms are being voiced about the rail industry.

The Hatfield crash has raised concerns yet again about the safety of travel by rail among a large section of the public. Several criticisms are being voiced about the rail industry.

The rail safety groups that have sprung up in response to other accidents have expressed concern that nothing has been done since the disasters at Ladbroke Grove and Southall.

There are even suggestions that far from improving, safety on the railway is deteriorating and that there are more accidents than in the past. Moreover, comparisons are being made with our European counterparts, suggesting that Britain's railways are less safe than those on the Continent.

These arguments are all largely mistaken but are gaining wide currency among a public faced with headlines such as yesterday's in The Mirror, which suggested that taking a train was the "new national lottery". Of course, with the third part of the Ladbroke Grove inquiry due to start at the end of this month, and its report not due out until the middle of next year, much remains to be done but in the interim, the fitting of the Train Protection and Warning system has been speeded up, driver training has been improved and a better system of dealing with incidents of Signals Passed at Danger has been introduced. The Health and Safety Executive is introducing a system whereby train companies will have to show how they intend to improve safety year on year, rather than just maintaining the same level of safety.

All this was undoubtedly too late, but it is not correct to say that nothing has been done over the past year. Moreover, the railways are getting safer decade by decade in terms of the most important measure, the number of passengers killed in rail accidents. Every decade since the war, the number of deaths has gone down, from a total of 344 in the 1940s to 46 in the 1990s, despite the 31 deaths at Ladbroke Grove.

Even the figures showing Britain's railways as more dangerous are not entirely correct. The raw figures show that Britain has 0.36 deaths per billion kilometres and is 11th in the European league table compared with 0.09 in Spain, the "safest" country. However, the figures are provided by the national railways and Britain's are drawn up conservatively. They include deaths such as drunks who fall under trains from station platforms (as long as they have a ticket, otherwise they are excluded), while in other countries only the number actually killed in crashes is counted. Moreover, in the South-east, Britain has the most extensively used rail network in Europe, which contributes to the danger. Virtually all the biggest disasters since the war - Lewisham, Harrow, Clapham and Ladbroke Grove - have been on this busy commuter network.

There are, though, some areas of great concern. The sharp growth during the 1990s in incidents of vandalism that result in damage to parts of the railway including, sometimes, the track and trains themselves, has been a big area of concern for the HSE in its recent annual reports. And Railtrack's failure to bring down the level of broken rails after a rapid rise in the years after privatisation was nothing short of a scandal for which the company will now pay dearly.

But railways remain the safest form of travel - probably by a factor of more than100 times in relation to car driving. That statistic should presage all discussion of issues of rail safety.

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