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November 25th 2000

Follow-up Article

How not to run a railway

Nov 25th 2000
From The Economist print edition

Copyright : The Economist

Overreaction to last month’s rail crash has increased the risks to rail passengers, not reduced them


BRITAIN’S transport system is in chaos. Speed restrictions have been imposed across the rail network, hundreds of miles of track are being replaced, and many train journeys are now taking longer than they did in the Victorian days of steam. So many services have been cancelled or delayed that there is still no emergency timetable on a lot of lines. Despairing commuters are fleeing the railways and taking to their cars, so the roads are getting snarled up too.

Being British, many people are inclined to put up with all this, in the belief that they are getting a safer transport system as a result. But they are not. The chaos is likely to cause more deaths than it saves and the money that is supposed to save lives is being misspent.

Last month’s crash at Hatfield, which killed four people and injured 34, was a disgrace, caused by what one train operator described as “outrageously bad management”. The broken rail which caused the derailment had been identified as defective many months before. But only a handful of other parts of the network are, according to industry experts, in a similarly dangerous condition. Yet Railtrack has identified 3,000 sections of rail and 850 points as needing to be replaced, and, as a result, has restricted speeds to 20 miles per hour on nearly 500 sections of track.

Experience, and pretty much everybody in the industry, argues that this is an overreaction. The Hatfield accident was very unusual. Though broken rails are relatively common—there are, on average, two of them somewhere in the country every week—they have caused only six fatalities in the past 30 years. The four Hatfield deaths are included in that figure.

But while industry experts are sanguine about the risks from broken rails, they are alarmed by the possible consequences of running a railway without a timetable, which is what is happening in many parts of the country. Drivers are currently having to consult up to 16 pages of special directions on speed restrictions, which increases the chances that they might pass a red signal. Signals passed at danger (SPADS, as they are known in the industry) are at least ten times more likely to kill people than a broken rail. They have caused many serious accidents, including the one at Ladbroke Grove last year in which 31 people died.

What’s more, decanting frustrated rail passengers on to the roads, where the accident rate per kilometre travelled is 12 times that of rail (see chart), also makes travelling more dangerous. Over the past month, the railways are estimated to have lost nearly a third of their passengers. The resulting growth in road traffic is likely, according to road-safety experts, to result in five additional deaths—nearly as many as broken rails have caused over the past 30 years.

Ministers and rail chiefs, of course, know all this. The chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, Sir Alastair Morton, has told the government that risks to passengers have been increased rather than diminished by the current safety restrictions. But when ministers are asked why they have backed the crippling of the railway despite knowing that this is inherently more dangerous, they reply: “We cannot afford to have another Hatfield.” In private, they acknowledge that the current rail chaos does not make sense. But they are too scared of the reaction of the press to say this in public.

Rail experts are increasingly contemptuous, talking of “cowardice”. Chris Green, chief executive of Virgin Trains, says bluntly: “We have got to get back to commonsense.” Richard Hope, consulting editor to the Railway Gazette and a former adviser to the parliamentary select committee on transport, says the current chaos is “unnecessary and totally unprofessional”. Railtrack officials privately admit that if they could be sure of political support, they would lift many of the speed restrictions immediately.

This short-term stupidity is bad enough; but the long-term, underlying policy towards rail and road safety is worse. All safety measures imply a value on life, by estimating the number of lives that can be saved for a given level of investment (see chart again). Evidence to the joint inquiry into the Southall and Ladbroke Grove crashes heard that the proposed new advanced train protection system would cost 2 billion to install across the network, equivalent to more than 15m per life saved. The cheaper train protection warning system works out at 5m per life saved. By contrast, road-safety projects tend to be approved by local authorities only if their benefits exceed the costs by a huge margin. Local authorities will rarely approve safety measures if the cost per fatality prevented is more than 100,000.

Popular preferences cannot account for this disparity. A recent Health and Safety Executive report found that the public does not place more importance on preventing rail accidents than road accidents. That point matters, because the public’s willingness to pay for safety is widely accepted as a key principle in appraising safety projects.

Presumably the visual impact of train-crash pictures, and the terror they generate among politicians, is mostly to blame. Privatisation, too, may have heightened the obsession with rail safety, because there are many more different bodies involved in the business of managing the railways—the government, Railtrack, the train operators, the various regulators—and they are all trying to cover their own backs. In addition, rail privatisation is still such a delicate issue that politicians are willing to throw money at it to avoid embarrassment. And nobody involved is brave enough to say publicly how wrong this is.

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