The vital task now is to establish a safety culture on the railways

Share

We owe it to the memory of Robert Alcorn, Steve Arthur, Leslie Gray and Peter Monkhouse to learn the right lessons from the train crash at Hatfield in which they died. It has been pointed out that more than twice as many people die virtually unreported on the roads every day, which is true, but irrelevant.

We owe it to the memory of Robert Alcorn, Steve Arthur, Leslie Gray and Peter Monkhouse to learn the right lessons from the train crash at Hatfield in which they died. It has been pointed out that more than twice as many people die virtually unreported on the roads every day, which is true, but irrelevant.

The crucial difference is that when people get into a cars they are, to a large extent, the author of their own destiny. If you drive at 15mph in the gutter all the way from Edinburgh to London you will annoy other road users, but you are most unlikely to die. When, on the other hand, you board a train - or a plane or a boat - you are entrusting yourself to the competence of strangers and the effectiveness of unseen systems of human organisation.

The fact that train travel is relatively far safer than motoring and has been getting safer, even since privatisation, is not only tragically irrelevant to the families of the bereaved but beside the point for the rest of us. No one expects zero risk from travelling at speeds of more than 100mph, nor does anyone expect unlimited spending of ticket-buyer or tax-payer's money on safety, but the level of avoidable risk in the present system is still clearly too high.

So what should be done? At least the Hatfield derailment has diverted attention from the search for expensive systems to prevent train collisions and focused attention where it should be, on the regulation of human organisations. In fact, the response to the accident has been surprisingly measured. Although the poor state of the rails on that high-speed curve was quickly established as the likely cause of the accident, lodging responsibility firmly with Railtrack, not a single newspaper suggested that the resignation of Gerald Corbett, its chief executive, should be accepted.

This may be sensible, because he has improved the safety culture of the company in his three years there. But it cannot be enough to pat him on the back and say, "Carry on with the good work".

Nor is it any use Mr Corbett blaming the "fragmentation" of the rail industry at privatisation for its safety problems. It is true, but again largely irrelevant, that privatisation was botched and that the structure of the rail industry is a mess. There are too many operating companies which are not in meaningful competition with each other, and it is a pity that the current round of franchises is only reducing the number from 25 to 23.

What really matters, however, is the fragmentation within Railtrack itself. One of Mr Corbett's claims to stay in his job rests on his record of tightening up the company's control of its contractors, but the evidence of Railtrack's letter to Balfour Beatty published yesterday suggests that it is still far from adequate.

One of the respects in which the industry has become less fragmented since privatisation, however, is the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority under Sir Alastair Morton. But its legislative powers have still not been enacted, and the Government is waiting for the report of the Cullen inquiry into the Paddington rail disaster before considering other ways of trying to insulate safety at Railtrack from commercial pressures.

But John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, does not need to wait before addressing the question: if Railtrack knew the line at Hatfield was unsafe, was the threat of loss of revenue a factor in keeping it open? He needs to do more than knock heads together: he needs to create institutions and incentives which ensure that the culture of safety in the rail industry is as stringent as it is in aviation.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Automotive Parts Manager

£27300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a leading...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Customer Service Advisor

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading boiler ...

Recruitment Genius: International Customer Service Administrators

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea