Management must take leading role in boosting rail safety

Technology can save lives. Human error wastes lives. But how much technology do you need to minimise the risks of human error?

There were 600 instances of trains passing red lights last year, it emerged this week. That in itself is a frightening statistic. But technology, in the form of systems such as automated train protection, which locks up the brakes if a train passes a red signal, should provide a foolproof solution to this problem.

Many people have been calling this week for the introduction of such systems across the entire network, whatever it costs. The Government should pay, making up for years of underinvestment. Or the train operators should pay, forgoing some of their vast profits. What’s more likely is that the public would pay, via higher taxes or higher train fares.

From an engineering point of view, the only alternative – and a faster solution – is to make the technology of existing signalling and warning systems work as it has been designed to do, and as it is clearly far from able to do at present. Drivers, of course, have to stay alert. But if signals are obscure – a suspected factor in this week’s tragedy – then why on earth can they not be improved more quickly? With reports this week that drivers were grumbling for some time about the suspect signal near Paddington, the implication is that nothing was done quickly enough by the Railtrack managers concerned.

That’s a management problem, as much as a technological one, and goes to the heart of the relationship between Railtrack and the train operators. And it may be as well for this to be sorted out first, as investment in a network of better-motivated and involved drivers, whose concerns are listened to by management, could be as much a part of the answer as the technological solution.