A proposal for RAIB - Thursday August 12 2010
I always find Rail Accident Investigation Branch incident reports interesting reading. I’ve always been fascinated by the way the circumstances to an accident large or small often builds from the most innocuous mistake. A signalman forgets to place a lever collar and overlooks the train standing at the signal controlled by that lever, or a driver overlooks rule 55 ordering him to remind signalmen of his presence at a stop signal…and the seeds of catastrophe are sown.
Death and disaster have visited the railway on an epic scale thanks to such human error, or the failure to use a piece of equipment costing pennies. Maybe a fireman hands over a single track token to a member of station staff, who fails to swap it for the proper one and mistakenly hands it back to the same crew who have just given it up. The driver fails to check he has been given the correct single line authority, proceeds - and there’s a head on collision.
Such minor, but far-reaching errors can have terrible consequences, such as the Abermule disaster of 1921 or the Hawes Junction horror of 1910, after which the signalman uttered a quote of such awesome simplicity, horror and dignity that it’s always stuck in my mind. “Go and tell the stationmaster I have wrecked the Scotch express.”
The legendary Tom Rolt was the first railway writer to turn formal railway reports into compelling, best-selling historical prose with his classic ‘Red for Danger’ which has been updated many times and remains a favourite book of mine. Regular RAIL contributor Stan Hall has also added considerably to the fund of published railway literature on railway safety and accidents and to read how the circumstances of an accident built, and what was then done afterwards to try and stop it happening again, always makes for a captivating tale. Well, it does for me.
But notwithstanding all those decades of lessons learned, there can still be no room for complacency on the railway, as RAIB’s ongoing reports show. They may often be minor mishaps but they are still mishaps which highlight the prospect of yet bigger disasters against which RAIB’s excellent reports are pitched. The price of safety is eternal vigilance and RAIB’s work shows how we continue to watch, and learn, when it goes wrong. Even in a small way. And that’s exactly how it should be. You can download RAIB reports as they are published, here.
In the United States, accidents on land are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board – the legendary NTSB. I was looking at some of its post-accident material recently and was really impressed with the animations it produces: showing how circumstances built, leading to an accident. Click here for a good example.
Animations enhance understanding considerably and make clear what is happening with the trains and signalling as the fateful sequence of events leading to a collision relentlessly unfold. I think it’s marvellous and given today’s desktop technology this sort of thing isn’t difficult – or expensive – to do. You can look at the NTSB webpage details about this acident here. There's a complete list of rail accident animations here, with aviation mishaps here - an especially interesting example of which is this one, showing how Chelsey Sullenberger's passenger ariliner came down in the Hudson, in New York, after a bird strike following take off from La Guardia,
After the Christmas cock-up in the Channel Tunnel involving the five Eurostar trains which broke down undergound (or should I say underwater?) an animated presentation was used by Chris Garnett at the press conference to show how it all happened. Difficult and complex to explain using words alone, it was a compelling aspect of his investigation report which really helped understanding.
I think animations like the NTSB example should become accepted practice in complex incidents and accidents.
Maybe some enterprising computer geek (and I mean that in the complimentary sense!) could apply the NTSB principle to some of the UK’s most famous accidents from which lessons were learned?
Ladbroke Grove would be a good example and you could show where the Thames Turbo and Great Western HSTs should have gone – and where they actually did go. You’d learn a lot about signalling, TPWS and track layouts, not to mention flank protection and signalling overlaps.
And imagine the fascination to be had from applying this technique to historic accidents involving multiple trains and collisions in steam days….Harrow & Wealdstone (1952), Quinsinshill (1915) and Hawes Junction (1910) for example.
The interest is not ghoulish – there is greater understanding to be had. It’s already been done in aviation. Check out this simulation showing what happened, in real time, with the authentic voice recordings, of what happened when that US airliner landed in the Hudson River.
So maybe RAIB could take note for future accidents – but what about some animations of historic accidents, for learning and training purposes?
Maybe a job for the Institution of Railway Operators for the signalling elements of its education programme?