Rail Safety

16 June 2011
Brian Micklethwait

Last week, in the London Evening Standard, the now free London evening paper, hard pressed commuters (commuters are always hard pressed – it’s the law) were able to read this, about some not so lucky fellow commuters:

Rail commuters were trapped on a train for up to six hours and then threatened with arrest when they tried to escape overheated carriages.

Tens of thousands of people - including a woman who is eight months pregnant - were caught up in the chaos that left 60 trains stranded last night in the middle of Transport Secretary Philip Hammond’s Runnymede and Weybridge constituency.

The crisis, caused by thieves who stole power cable, brought the line to a standstill at 6.30pm and left passengers trapped until after 11pm. Today commuters attacked rail company South West Trains as a “shambles”, as they described how they tried to escape from carriages only to be told they were breaking the law.

The heavily pregnant woman, Emma Firth, 35, told how she and a group of passengers decided to “make a bid for freedom” at 10.30pm after being trapped on a train from Clapham Junction since 6.30pm. But as they tried to climb down on to the track, guards made an announcement saying they would be arrested for trespass if they did.

A severe delay.  Harassment of travellers, no doubt for what seemed like very good reasons (safety, basically) when the rules being followed so charmlessly that night were put in place.  So far so routine.

But later in the same report, this:

A train spokesman said a review of how it responded to train disruption has been ordered.

“We are very sorry for the significant impact last night’s signal problems had on a large number of our passengers.

“We would like to thank them for their patience during some extremely difficult circumstances.

“We appreciate that many passengers spent several hours on trains while Network Railengineers worked hard to rectify the major signalling faults. Network Rail has confirmed today that the signalling problems were caused by an attempted cable theft.

“We are extremely angry and frustrated that mindless and irresponsible vandalism meant that many of our passengers had a terrible journey last night.

“Our station, train and customer service teams did their very best to keep passengers updated at the main locations across our network and to help get customers home through the night.

“We will be working with Network Rail to review how we responded to this incident. We are committed to learning any lessons, including taking any steps required to improve the flow of information to passengers.”

My blog posting title has already given my game away, but honestly, had I not done this, would you have spotted what I spotted?  “Passengers”.

For years railway people in Britain have been calling us “customers”, a usage that I do not like for reasons I find tricky to explain even to myself.

It’s something to do with the fact that the word “passenger” describes the true relationship.  We are at their mercy.  When they called us “passengers” they were acknowledging this fact.  Calling us “customers” attributes to us a spurious degree of autonomy, like we could get out at any moment if we didn’t like the journey.  Which (see above) everyone knows we actually can’t do.  And if we got off at an earlier station because we didn’t like the journey we were being subjected to, we’d not be given our money back.  Besides which, once you’ve committed to a train journey, the only logical course is to stick with it.  If you don’t like it, you don’t do it again.  But while it lasts, you must simply endure.

I see what they’ve been trying to do with all this “customer” talk.  They want all concerned to realise that market disciplines are in play, especially their own staff.  The last thing they want is for their staff to act, in a bad way, on the idea that we are totally at their mercy.  Trouble is: we are.  This is a fact which all concerned ought to be facing, not dodging, even verbally.

I have similar feelings about the word “patient” as used by health services.  If a hospital started describing its charges as “customers”, I think I’d feel that the same kind of verbal dishonesty, the same kind of falsehood about the real relationship involved, was being perpetrated.

My guess is that this reversion to the old word was a mistake, made in stressful conditions, rather than any kind of major policy shift.  But even so, interesting, I think.

21 November 2010
A few rather ancient transport links
Brian Micklethwait

Some while back I started accumulating links to interesting transport things, concerning events during the recent spell of Transport Blog outage, by googling “transport” and ignoring everything boring, which is a hell of a lot.  (Mostly politicians moaning about how they aren’t being allowed or should be allowed to waste public money on transport crap of various sorts.)

But then I got ill and forgot about this.  Today, just to clear my decks, I give you this file of links.  There aren’t actually that many, but for what they are worth, click and enjoy:

Inside the world’s biggest private jet.

Is Google the most significant transport enterprise of twenty first century?

Passengers break out of train.

Germany gets across the channel.  It’s taken seventy years for the big arrows at the beginning of Dad’s Army to get here, but now they are about to.

The mobile web is bigger than transport.

Video of train spotter failing to spot the train.  It’s behind you.

Buy more salt.  I.e. for the roads this winter.

And finally, what with Michael’s recent writings here on the subject, a couple of motorcycle links: Motorcycles - miracle or menace?, and The tireless motorcycle museum curator.  Tireless.  Get it?  Oh never mind.

See also this excellent Vietnam motorbike picture.

Patrick: please feel free to re-edit the categorisations below.

LATER:  I also agree with the commenter who reckons that this bit of road building video is BRILJANT!!!

22 October 2007
Again with the doors not opening
Brian Micklethwait

This time, what happened was that the train overshot its landing at a scheduled stop, and only the last half of the final carriage was next to the platform.  And once again, guess what, they refused to open the doors even of this one carriage, to let people off who wanted to get off at that particular station.  (It was our old friend leaves on the line which had put the driver off his game.) Would be exit-ing passengers had to go on to the next stop, and then take another train back.

This would never have happened in one of those old trains, with horribly clunky but independently hand operated doors, instead of the centrally controlled doors they have now.  Suddenly, these new carriages take on the air of prisons.

Squander Two tells the story.  It wasn’t so much what the guard said that got him angry, as the way that he said it.  ST didn’t, as they used to say, care for the fellow’s tone.

19 October 2007
The doors will not open
Rob Fisher

In between making lengthy PA announcements about how he was sorry he didn’t have any information to give us, our train guard mentioned that the station we were stuck at for ten minutes was not a scheduled stop and the doors would not be opening.

I wonder why.  What if people wanted to get on or off at that station?  Why not make the best of a bad situation?  Perhaps official procedure prohibits it, in which case it is a rather petty example of the rule obsession of which Jonathan Pierce complains.

It wasn’t always like this:  As a small child in the 80s I clearly remember being led across the tracks with my mother by the station attendant for some reason or another.  I’m sure it was perfectly safe.  Today such discretion would be unthinkable (third rails notwithstanding).

17 May 2007
The obvious answer
Brian Micklethwait

As Amit Varma says, you’ve got to love a headline that goes “Train passengers asked to get out and push”:

Hundreds of Indian rail passengers got more than they had bargained for when the driver of their train asked them to get out and push.

It took more than half an hour to move the stalled electric train 12 feet so that it touched live overhead wires and was able to resume its journey, officials said on Wednesday.

The incident occurred in the eastern state of Bihar on Tuesday after a passenger pulled the train’s emergency chain and it halted in a “neutral zone,” a short length of track where there is no power in the overhead wires.

Which is all perfectly logical.  This could happen to any train operator.  They did exactly the right thing in asking the passengers to assist.

Here in England, if anything similar occurred, the passengers would have been delayed for far longer.  That’s because India is now a self-help we-can-do-it society, while England is now a what-are-they-going-to-do-about-it? safety-worshipping society.

26 February 2007
Richard Branson's carriages are not the only passenger carriers recently to have performed well in crash conditions.

Hat tip Samizdata.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (0)Rail SafetyRoad Safety
22 December 2006
Why the police should not investigate rail crashes
Patrick Crozier

I know this is a bit late in the day but last week there was a documentary into the police investigation into the Potters Bar train crash.  The long and the short of it was that they couldn’t find out what happened.

My take:

  • The police should not be investigating in the first place.
  • Nor, for that matter, should any other government organisation.
  • The police investigation actually hindered the business of finding out what happened.

It hindered things?

Yes everyone gets nervous and clams up.

But don’t the police have to investigate cases of corporate manslaughter?

Yes, I suppose if there is an offence of corporate manslaughter they should, indeed, investigate.  It’s just that I don’t think it should be an offence.

Why not?

Mainly because the supporters of laws like this all seem to be people who just don’t like freedom.  But I also think that we already have redress through whatever contract we have with the corporation concerned.

But if there are no government investigators how will the victims’ families ever find out the truth?

I don’t accept that they have a right to the truth.  However, there are good reasons to think that a rail company would want to share the information.

Such as?

It would demonstrate good will, openness and, perhaps most importantly, a willingness to learn from its mistakes.

But how are we to guarantee safety without the state?

Firstly, this assumes that safety is the only thing - it isn’t.  Secondly, even as a factor it is still important for both traveller and train company - so the likelihood is that it will be taken care of.

I can understand why it might be important for the traveller but why the company?

Because accidents cost money.  You lose the train (one carriage costs about £1m).  Track gets smashed up.  You have to cancel services.  Potential customers get put off.  For what it’s worth, from my point of view trains are too safe.  I would be quite happy to travel on a train that’s far more dangerous if it meant lower fares.  But, then again, I know how safe trains actually are.  Rail safety is a producer thing not a consumer thing.


28 November 2006
Dearieme hijacks the comments to say:
Apologies for repeating myself, but I’d be grateful for your comment if you know anything about this figure:-
According to the HSE “The provisional number of members of the public fatally injured in 2005/06 was 384, of which 254 resulted from acts of suicide or trespass on railways.” 254 per annum is 5 per week. One every weekday. Can it be true?
Before answering his own question:
Please excuse my bad manners, but I can now answer my own question. http://www.rail-reg.gov.uk/upload/pdf/296.pdf tells us about the new safety body for the railways and says that in 2005, there were 280 deaths from trespass or suicide. I am still reeling from this-why does everyone still talk about how safe the railways are?
Well, in answer to the second question, it's probably because in the vast majority of cases it's the victim's own fault. Incidentally the gap between 254 and 384 is probably down to people falling down the stairs.

Even so, I agree with him, the numbers are surprising.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (1)Rail Safety
15 November 2006
David Aaronovitch on the number of British railway deaths in the year 2005
Brian Micklethwait

David Aaronovitch is not really writing about transport in this piece, but it includes this:

My favourite living British playwright is Sir David Hare, who understands - where others don’t - the ambiguities of political existence in a democracy. But not always. Three years ago Sir David put on his play about deaths on the railways, The Permanent Way, and described it as a “painful parable about the badness of British government”. He went on: “The play is really asking: why do politicians not see what is completely obvious to everyone else? And the answer is that it suits them to privatise things, because then they’re able to blame other people when things go wrong.”

Yes, that would be it. But in 2005 there were exactly zero passenger fatalities on British trains. That’s none. So where’s the parable now? Is Sir David likely to do a follow-up in which he discovers the essential goodness of government through the numbers our trains (compared with France and Germany) don’t kill? I look forward to Marcus Brigstocke bringing us a skit on the lack of rail casualties.

I suppose a really daring libertarian like me - well not really like me – might argue that what this at least suggests is that too much attention may now be being paid to rail safety, and not enough to other useful things.  Such as, most obviously, value for money spent by the taxpayer.  (Is Britain’s railway system now a grubby and cunningly disguised Concorde?  Discuss.)  But, on the other hand, safety is not only good from the non-killing point of view, but because it also contributes to other good railway things, like punctuality, ticket sales, and even, eventually, perhaps, value for money spent by the taxpayer.

Sort of like liberty, also good in itself, and good for causing other desirable things.

Certainly Transport Boss supremo Patrick is now fond of telling me about how he lives one minute’s walk from a railway station, which of course means that he always leaves leaving to catch a train until the last possible minute, what with it being so easy to calculate.  But, now, most inconveniently, the trains are never late.

Certainly safety and punctuality do appear to go together, railway-wise.

09 September 2006
Book Review: Battle for the North: The Tay and Forth Bridges and the 19th-century Railway Wars by Charles McKean. Just don't pay too much attention to the reviewer's conclusions.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Rail Safety