Railways, roads, and avoiding an over-reaction

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Deaths that occur on our railways have a particular capacity to shock, as Saturday's crash involving the First Great Western express train to Plymouth, which killed seven people, demonstrates. The temptation in times like this is to call for a drastic response to ensure that nothing similar can happen again. In this case the culprit has been identified as level crossings, which allow vehicles and pedestrians to cross railway lines.

Deaths that occur on our railways have a particular capacity to shock, as Saturday's crash involving the First Great Western express train to Plymouth, which killed seven people, demonstrates. The temptation in times like this is to call for a drastic response to ensure that nothing similar can happen again. In this case the culprit has been identified as level crossings, which allow vehicles and pedestrians to cross railway lines.

The circumstances of this collision are still being investigated, but it is pretty clear that the direct cause was a car parked, either deliberately or not, on the train tracks at a level crossing near Ufton Nervet in Berkshire. The train ploughed into the vehicle and derailed. Some, including the leader of the RMT union Bob Crow, have been quick to argue for all level crossings to be shut down.

This argument would seem to be supported by a report by Her Majesty's Railway's Inspectorate, which only two months ago identified level crossings as the greatest potential rail risk. It pointed out that many of the fatalities on Britain's railways each year occur at level crossings. Network Rail is phasing out level crossings, and many have already been removed from heavily-used lines. The question is whether Network Rail and the Highways Agency should now embark on a building programme to replace all single level crossings with bridges and underpasses - something that would cost billions of pounds. The answer is surely not.

The recent crashes in Hatfield, Ladbroke Grove and Southall were due to human error and poor systems. It was right that action was taken in response to these terrible cases. But this crash seems to have more in common with the accident at Selby three years ago, for which no one in the rail industry was to blame.

We should also not lose sight of the fact that the railways are still safer than our roads. The Rail Safety and Standards Board estimates that travelling by train is now nine times safer per mile than travelling by car. That is worth bearing in mind as the inevitable cries that "something must be done" grow louder.

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