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26 August 1999

Safety first?

Just mention concerns about safety these days and you're bound to win the argument. How can anybody possibly be against it? Helping to avoid hazardous circumstances and minimising health and safety risks is surely important evidence of a civilised society. Curiously though, it seems to be growing evidence of an irrational society - as concerns about safety are almost in inverse proportion to the danger.

When the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) remarked that last year there was a 21 percent increase in broken or damaged rails, the media seized the news with a frenzy. Railtrack's fate was sealed as the public's No 1 hate figure.

Anybody who has ever travelled by rail will know that trackside repairs are an important feature of the transport sector. In the past, this was generally accepted as part of a sensible maintenance programme, replacing worn and damaged tracks or sleepers. Today however, instead of accepting this procedure as an indication of good management, it's portrayed as evidence of cavalier business practice. The rolling programme of maintenance is proof that the system cannot be 100 percent safe at the moment.

The increased number of damaged rails cited by the HSE represents a mere 162 additional flaws, over 18 750 miles of track. That is to say, 973 incidents of damaged rails in total, caused by vandalism, increased freight traffic or general wear and tear were discovered last year. Undoubtedly Railtrack should do better, but it's worth noting that for the first time in the first five years of Railtrack's existence, there have been no fatalities from rail accidents. You can't say fairer than that. Regardless of the fact that there have been no casualties or derailments as a result of damaged rails in 20 years of British railways, the media still bayed for blood.

How blasé to celebrate the improvements in safety. We should, according to the scaremongers, be concerned about the possibility of deaths in the future. Laudable maybe, but an example of the impossibility of satisfying dedicated Health and Safety zealots.

Indeed when John Prescott announced major government investment in railway advanced warning systems, designed to prevent any chances of trains running through red lights, he was accused of trying to introduce safety on the cheap. It seems that there is no way to escape the Health and Safety juggernaut.

We all know that Railtrack and the DETR are seriously under-investing, but credit where credit's due. No Railtrack employees have been killed at work since 1995, and all injuries are down by eight percent this year. Love them or loathe them, having invested over 40 million upgrading their tracks, it must be admitted that they have a reasonably respectable record on safety given the nature of the job. Unfortunately, there is a morbid disbelief in the safety of out transport systems.

The number of children killed on the roads is about half the number of 10 years ago. The number of people killed in traffic accidents is at an all-time low and the number of UK air, sea and rail accidents are a fraction of what they were in the 1980s. Even though the statistics bear it out, I'm sure that those of you reading this commentary over your breakfast cereal won't really believe me. Instead of celebrating these very real improvements, we worry about the possibility that we could be one of those remaining outstanding casualties.

In fact, while we're all concentrating on nominal risks to our Health and Safety, comfort and convenience have become marginal concerns. In fact, it could be said that inconvenience has become a governing principle for transport policy (as many motorists will testify). Some commentators argue that the take-up of public transport has increased primarily due to the inconveniencing suffered by the car driver rather than from any inherent 'road to Damascus' conversion to the pleasures of public transport.

As it happens, peak-time trains are packed, noisy and often uncomfortable places, especially on commuter routes. The recent Rail Users' Consultative Committee annual report showed that complaints about rail standards have almost trebled in the last two years covering everything from curly sandwiches to late arrivals.

A lot of these Passenger Charter-style complaints can be taken with a pinch of salt. As a great British institution, we should expect railway fayre to be crap, (even though there is a new range of gourmet baguettes now on sale). But we should not expect too few carriages, Second Class (standard class) conditions, uncoordinated interconnections and the same routes as there were 50 years ago. Unfortunately, too few people complain about these fundamentals.

The next time that you have to sit on your suitcase in the toilet lobby on board an Intercity 125 from London to Edinburgh, enjoy it, content in the knowledge that you probably won't fall out of the door.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport in the Millennium conference at the Royal College of Art on 11 September 1999. For more details, phone (0191) 265 6885 or email austinrhys@aol.com

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