“We might be the safest, but we’re not safe enough”

It seems incredible now, but in the later BR years, before privatisation, we could expect to see passenger fatalities in a train crash roughly every 18 months.

Viewed from today’s perspective, that is a truly shocking statistic. At the time, it was seen as tragic, but to be expected. 

Moreover, we proudly regarded our railways as an epitome of safety, which was clearly far from the case. Indeed, at the time of privatisation there were still main lines unfitted with the Automatic Warning System (AWS).

Nowadays, there would be media, public and political uproar at a passenger fatality every year and a half - as indeed there was in the 31-month period encompassing Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar. These were the accidents that kick-started a rapid process of change that prompted the nationwide withdrawal of the Mk 1 carriage in everyday use (it remains for charters), and the nationwide rapid fitment of Train Protection Warning System (TPWS).

This rapidly shifting context and public attitude to rail safety is reinforced by a quick look at my battered and much-read original paperback copy of L T C Rolt’s classic book Red for Danger, which should be essential reading for every railwayman and woman.

The publisher’s promotional ‘blurb’ on the rear cover proclaims: “…Red for Danger - which covers every major accident on British railways between 1840 and 1957 and tells of the lessons learned which have made a British railway carriage one of the safest places in the world!”

That claim was clearly wide of the mark, but went unchallenged. And it’s a theme that Rolt pursues elsewhere. My revised edition is dated 1966, and on the flyleaf, Rolt quotes Shakespeare: “Out of this nettle, danger, we’ll pluck the flower, safety.” (Henry IV, Part 1).

These quotations illustrate just how much has been done to take the railway forward in safety terms in the last half-century, from a point at which book publisher Pan felt able to claim that a British railway carriage was “one of the safest places in the world”!

That claim is much more true today than it was in 1966, because in 2015 Britain’s railways in terms of passenger fatalities are now unquestionably the safest in Europe - and not just by a small margin (RAIL 780). 

Passenger fatalities work out at 0.7 per billion train kilometres, while the next best (the Netherlands) is 2.9 billion. By far the worst in Europe is Spain, at 110.5 billion, although that figure is heavily skewed by the high speed train crash at Santiago de Compostela in July 2013, when 79 people lost their lives (RAIL 728). 

This proves how just a single serious incident can have a major impact on both statistics and reputation, which is why the appalling Signal Passed at Danger (SPAD) by a West Coast Railways steam excursion at Wootton Bassett on March 7 was so significant. 

After passing SN45 at danger, the excursion hauled by 34067 Tangmere ran across a trailing double turnout junction occupied only a minute before by a First Great Western HST. We were a heartbeat away from a spectacular crash in which multiple fatalities would have been inevitable. 

That this was caused in a train of Mk 1/2 carriages, and by apparent abuse of the TPWS, meant it became a problem that fell squarely into Office of Rail and Road Chief Inspector and Director of Railway Safety Ian Prosser’s lap. (I’ll come back to this.)

Thanks largely to TPWS, no passenger has died on a British passenger train for more than eight years, since 84-year-old Margaret Masson lost her life in the high-speed Pendolino derailment of February 23 2007 near Grayrigg, in the Lake District. That is an astonishing achievement given that we now run around 20,000 trains every day - equating to 900,000 train miles.

In each of the past two years, there has been no passenger train derailment for the first time since records began. It is especially galling, therefore, that this excellent trend was broken on July 26 when the leading two vehicles of a Southeastern eight-car train, led by a Class 375, was derailed near Chilham station when it hit a herd of cows.

This goes to show just how fragile rail safety is. Accidents can be caused by the most innocuous decision or by an otherwise minor infrastructure failure, leading to animals straying onto the line. A very small issue or an innocent low-grade wrong decision can trigger catastophic and even fatal cascades of events. 

Railway history is littered with incidents of truly horrible fatal consequences flowing from such minor events, as the terrible accidents at Hawes Junction (1910) and Abermule (1921) illustrate only too clearly.

Full details of the current safety statistics for our railways were reported in RAIL 780, so I will not repeat them here. They are good, but could be better. And complacency is always an enemy in circumstances like this - as HMRI Chief Inspector Ian Prosser is only too aware. I use his traditional title, rather than his designation as Director of Railway Safety (as the ORR tends to like him to be publicly known), because 2015 is a very special year for Ian and his team.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the formation of the Railway Inspectorate, an organisation set up at the instigation of none other than George Stephenson. He had written to the Board of Trade, urging the establishment of a body to investigate on the causes of railway accidents and (crucially) to make recommendations to improve safety by preventing the same kinds of accidents happening again. 

So began the long march towards the safety achievements of today. Only the British Transport Police (people described as policemen were employed on the railway from 1838) is older as a railway institution in the country that gave railways to the world.

Prosser is very proud to be only the 25th holder of the title ‘Chief Inspector’ in an organisation that was given its royal warrant in 1990, to become Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate. In its 175th anniversary year (the anniversary was on August 10), it is appropriate to meet and talk to Prosser, who has been a RAIL reader since 1988.

We meet at the Office of Rail and Road offices just off Kingsway in London, a short distance from the fascinating ramp down to the Kingsway subway, where London’s ‘third rail’ trams used to burrow underground to emerge on the Embankment. The stone setts, running rails and centre power conduit are all still there, 63 years after the last tram ran in 1952. Interesting to think that if they’d survived, they would now come under Prosser’s regulatory control, as do all trams and light rail in Britain.

Prosser starts by outlining what HMRI is doing in its most strategic sense to avoid complacency, and thereby hopefully ensure we retain our status as Europe’s safest railway.

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