Railway should be run by people, not robots

Along the railway lines we have nothing to watch over the trains but satellites and sensors.


There is a lot in The Engineer about the increasingly sophisticated devices used to monitor and control safety on railway lines such as satellite navigation and track sensors, and the efforts being made to overcome the problems associated with them.


At the risk of sounding behind the times, am I missing a trick? Apart from the high-speed inter-city lines, many services are still what I would consider ‘local’. They stop frequently at stations over a long distance or run on smaller branch lines.


And the best control method for such rail networks is — people. I’m talking about the old manned signal boxes along the line, linked to one other by nothing more sophisticated than a telephone. A signalman can respond faster to a situation on the ground than any satellite, make instant decisons to help keep the service running and assess whether or not there is an emergency.


As is so often the case, we seem to be assuming that technology has all the answers, and that getting rid of people is a noble end in itself. So we have stations devoid of staff where the only place you can buy a ticket is a machine (if it works). I call that unsafe.


We also have many trains with no staff except a driver to assist passengers. I call that unsafe, too.


And along the lines we have nothing to watch over the trains but satellites and sensors. I also call that unsafe.


Colin Arnold


Nottingham