Counting the costs

Cold, hard facts on transport safety and risk need to be reconciled with the heat of emotion following the Paddington train crash, says Robert Gifford

For many people, 1999 will be dominated by the events of last week at Ladbroke Grove. The burnt-out wreck of coach H will be imprinted on our collective memory.

Much of the subsequent discussion has focused on whether technological solutions to signals passed at danger (Spads) would solve the safety problem. The loss of life has reopened the debate about whether or not Automatic Train Protection – or its equivalent – represents a good investment for safety.

The technological solution, however, is only part of the answer. There are measures that the industry and the regulators could take now to reassure the public about the safety of the railway system. Many of these were set out in a report published by the Railway Inspectorate in September on the management systems covering Spads.

What really worried the RI was the rise in serious Spad incidents from 42 in 1997/8 to 52 in 1998/99. Signal SN109 has been the subject of a number of Spads, yet action to reduce the problem or to resite the signal was not taken. The RI has now served an enforcement notice on Railtrack. Such a rapid response is welcome, as were the actions taken by the RI after the earlier report.

There needs to be a clear plan of action to tackle signals passed regularly at danger. There should be better, more consistent briefings for drivers. There should be better training for drivers, including emphasis on defensive driving techniques. Human factors, especially fatigue arising from rostering, should be considered in more detail.

In the minds of many ordinary people, two changes in railway culture have become inseparable: the use of quantified risk assessment (QRA) and privatisation – the two have been running in parallel during the 1990s. The industry may see them as separate, but for the public they are inextricably linked.

There is nothing wrong with QRA as an approach to safety investment. It asks professionals to identify the likelihood of an event, and the costs and consequences of taking remedial action. It enables the identification of where best to apply resources to achieve maximum benefit. If we want to save lives or reduce accidents, we need data to help us.

If QRA helps to identify where usefully to spend money, the corollary is also true: it identifies where injecting cash is unlikely to prove beneficial. In this sense, it can be used as an approach to cut safety measures as well as to defend them. It can be used, as the RI has said, to justify doing nothing rather than doing something.

This is where privatisation may have an impact. Market forces can improve services for the customer but can also encourage providers to cut costs.

In every industry, safety is often seen as a burden rather than a benefit. For the critics of privatisation, QRA and cost reduction have become one and the same. Any hope for a rational debate about how best to improve safety is difficult to envisage at the moment.

Since the Paddington disaster there has been a growing divide in the public discussion about railway safety. The profession has used the language of reason. The relatives of victims and their solicitors have emphasised the language of emotion and anger. Both are right to use the terms that they do, but both are also wrong.

Ladbroke Grove reminds us of the need to bring together reason and emotion to make real progress.

Robert Gifford is executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety