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.

  1. On the point about Britain’s railways being a cunningly disguised Concorde - they are.  In the 1980s BR’s subsidy was about £1bn a year.  Now, the subsidy which itself is disguised, is in the order of £7bn a year (last time I looked).

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  16 November 2006 at 12:17 am

  2. And most of that extra six billion is to cover the additional bureaucracy associated with fragmentation. 

    Although I have to admit there has been significant money spent of new rolling stock.

    One safety, there have been several high profile incidents such as Hatfield, Ladbrook Grove and Tebay which have been blamed on privatisation.  The Tebay accident (which killed four rail workers) was particularly disgraceful, and resulted in jail sentences for the culprits.

    Posted by Tim Hall on  16 November 2006 at 01:20 am

  3. That would be “privatisation” as in “contracting out” rather than as in “free market”.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  16 November 2006 at 03:32 am

  4. 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.”
    Hard to believe, isn’t it?

    Posted by dearieme on  17 November 2006 at 03:59 am

  5. contracting out

    Most politicians can’t tell the difference between introducing competition and outsourcing a monopoly.

    Posted by Squander Two on  24 November 2006 at 04:32 am

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