It is important to avoid a rush to judgement on this latest rail tragedy

Share

After all the questions in Parliament, the ministerial statement about the circumstances surrounding the non-departure of a press officer and the threat of a motion of censure, suddenly the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Transport have a direct relevance in the real world.

After all the questions in Parliament, the ministerial statement about the circumstances surrounding the non-departure of a press officer and the threat of a motion of censure, suddenly the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Transport have a direct relevance in the real world.

Of course it is too early to form any clear view about the causes or the lessons of the fatal derailment of a train at Potters Bar yesterday, in which more have already died than in the Hatfield crash 17 months ago. At this stage, it is more appropriate to express sympathy for the bereaved families and admiration for the work of the emergency services.

However, the potential importance of yesterday's tragedy can be measured by the fact that the Hatfield derailment turned the network into a national go-slow and finished off Railtrack as a company. All the more important, therefore, that there should be no rush to judgement – not least because of the increasingly frequently held view that the Government and Railtrack overreacted to the Hatfield crash.

Whatever Stephen Byers' many weaknesses as a minister, it seems unlikely that he could be held personally responsible for this accident. The fuss over his political future should not be allowed to cloud an appraisal of what happened yesterday. Equally, strongly-held views about the privatisation of the railways or about the re-nationalisation of the track company should not be allowed to influence our assessment.

In addition, there are many reasons for trying, even at this early stage which must be so painful for the families of those who died, to maintain a sense of perspective. It is always worth comparing the overall safety record of modern British railways with the past, with other countries or with other forms of transport. Despite a series of memorable crashes, rail travel in this country has been safer in recent years than it used to be.

Our safety record is also better than that of the railways in Germany, for example, despite that country's reputation for engineering excellence. There have also been at least two serious accidents in the United States recently, which should serve to remind us that no form of travel can ever be made wholly safe. The obvious comparison is with the death toll on the roads – an average of nine people every day of the year.

It is undoubtedly the case that a pile-up on a motorway which killed as many people as died on the train at Potter's Bar yesterday would merit a short news report on the inside pages of most newspapers. We should, however, remember an important difference between road and rail transport: getting on a train, we entrust our lives to the competence and vigilance of strangers. It is for that reason that we expect higher safety standards – and different news values.

A more apposite comparison is that between railways and aeroplanes. Aviation is an intrinsically more dangerous form of travel, yet its safety record is astonishingly good. Regardless of the outcome of any inquiry into the Potters Bar crash – and regardless of whether the railways are within the public sector or the private sector, or both – the really difficult question is always going to be how to replicate the aviation industry's safety culture in the railways.

Ultimately, that is a much more important issue than the future of Stephen Byers as a Cabinet minister or the inevitable, frantic hunt for someone, anyone, to blame.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003