Train crash deaths 'not the end of the world', says Howells

Kim Howells, the outspoken Transport minister, was involved in fresh controversy yesterday when he was accused by families of disaster victims of making offensive comments about rail crashes.

Mr Howells was criticised after telling the BBC's Today programme: "We look at every single accident as if it is the end of civilisation."

One of the groups representing survivors from the 1999 Paddington crash, said it was shocked by the "ill-timed" comments because there were three crash anniversaries in the next two months. They said: "We have all gone through a life-changing situation in surviving a major rail crash. We would not wish it on anyone else."

Dr Howells said there would always be train accidents and that safety work should not paralyse the network. He accepted it was a "very, very sensitive" subject and bereaved relatives would listen to every syllable spoken by ministers on the subject. He went on: "We have got an incredible kind of risk-averse culture. We have got a situation where this is probably the most safe form of transport there is, and yet we look at every single accident as if it is the end of civilisation.

"None of us wants accidents on the railways but this is a very serious question. Are we going to be paralysed in terms of the way in which we conduct the railway business or are we going to be sensible about it and say, 'Sure, there will be accidents'? What we have got to do is to make them absolutely minimal and get on with the task of getting millions and millions of people around this country day after day."

His comments came amid the prospect of huge disruption over the bank holiday weekend because of engineering work to renew track and replace signals. During the interview, he highlighted the death toll on the roads and said that one recent accident, in which seven people died, would have brought the network to a halt if it had happened on the railways.

But his comments during the interview were condemned by survivors, relatives of victims and Disaster Action, which represents survivors and the bereaved from big disasters.

"Kim Howells talking about this in a blasé fashion would indicate to me that he knows very little about the human dimension of disaster," said Pamela Dix, vice-chairwoman of Disaster Action. "The extraordinarily appalling consequences of a major disaster are lifelong for those affected by them. I think his comments are offensive, ill-timed and have little foundation."

Perdita Kark, whose father was killed and mother, the writer Nina Bawden, was injured in the Potters Bar crash in May last year, said Britain would never have an accident if the rail network was run properly.

The Paddington Survivors Group said there were survivors who were struggling to deal with what happened nearly four years ago. "Immediately after Paddington, John Prescott said, 'Money is no object' in making the railways safer. Now there appears to be a complete about-turn.

"Paddington happened because the companies involved did not take safety seriously enough. They now do. We sincerely hope that Dr Howells' comments will not send a signal that safety can now be lower down the agenda again.

"You absolutely cannot compare road deaths with rail deaths because as rail passengers we give up our safety to others. In cars, we are largely in control of our own destiny."

Robin Kellow, whose daughter Elaine, 24, died in the Paddington crash, also criticised his comments. "It's not only the families of the 31 dead, you have all the injured. It affects thousands of people."

In 2001, 3,450 died on the roads compared with 35 on the railways, 25 on British aircraft in UK air space and four on British merchant ships.

Government figures show that motorcycles are the most dangerous form of transport when comparing deaths to distances travelled. Rail is beaten by water, bus and air travel as the safest way to travel with only 0.4 deaths per billion passenger kilometres.

The annual safety performance report of Britain's railways for 2002 to 2004 shows that accidental deaths increased from seven to 15, mainly because of the death toll of six at Potters Bar. Some of the others died when they put their heads out of windows or fell trying to board trains.

Dr Howells has previously caused controversy by accusing American film stars of being too terrified to fly to Europe, describing entries for the Turner prize as "conceptual bullshit" and suggesting that some rap musicians had created a culture in which "killing is almost a fashion accessory".

A Department of Transport spokesman denied yesterday that Dr Howells was downgrading the importance of safety on the railways. "He was trying to make the point that rail is a very safe mode of transport and is improving," he said. "He was not denying that we need to do everything to make sure it stays safe."