Rail: who takes the risk?

As the death toll rose from the Paddington rail disaster - and the precise numbers were still unknown as the New Statesman went to press - the usual statistics were quoted. More people die on the roads in an average fortnight than were killed at Paddington; rail travel is twice as safe (proportionate to miles travelled) as air travel; last year, not a single passenger was killed on the British railway system.

This will not do for two reasons. First, motorists (and pedestrians, for that matter) can greatly increase their chances of survival through their own actions: those who are cautious, sober and law-abiding enjoy much better odds than the raw statistics might suggest. On the railways, by contrast, passengers put their lives in the hands of other people; they are entitled to the best possible protection against avoidable injury. Second, safety and comfort ought to be the main attractions of rail travel because, against motoring, it has few other advantages, being inflexible, expensive and quite often unreliable. As cars become sleeker and more sophisticated, rail must make the most of everything going for it. Yet while British roads are among the safest in Europe, despite the growing congestion, its railways are among the riskiest, at least as measured by the International Union of Railways in the decade up to 1996. As for the comparison with air travel, it is largely spurious, since on only a few routes are the two in serious competition.

Nobody yet knows exactly what caused the Paddington disaster. There can be no certainty that the use of the £1 billion Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system, which makes it impossible for a train to go through a red light but which transport ministers and railway operators have repeatedly ruled out as too expensive, would have prevented it. But that is not the point. The public perception is that safety is not a high priority on the railways. People believe that private operators will always try to cut corners and maintain profits as long as they can get away with it. (This may or may not be true, but it is certainly common sense, and since common sense is in fashion, we had best take note of it.) They understand that, because of the botched nature of the Tory privatisation, Railtrack has no real incentive to invest either in improved safety or in track and signals more generally. They read that the Transport Select Committee has criticised Railtrack for failing to supervise its maintenance contractors adequately and that the fragmented rail system makes proper safety regulation almost impossible. They know that the government has approved only a modified version of ATP, for only some parts of the system, for introduction by 2004. They hear of an 8 per cent increase last year in incidents of drivers passing through red lights, of significant annual increases in the numbers of broken rails, of eight recent near misses in the Paddington area alone. They will not be reassured by the long delay in opening the inquiry into the Southall rail disaster of 1997, where seven people died on the same stretch of track as last Tuesday's smash occurred.

In the aftermath of Paddington, the debate will no doubt be conducted in terms of "wasted" lives that could have been "saved" if only John Prescott or Gordon Brown or John Gummer or Kenneth Clarke, or whichever politician you want to throw mud at, had loosened the purse-strings a little. But these words, though understandable, are too emotive.

As it happens, calculations that the universal introduction of ATP would save only three lives a year could look pretty silly when the final Paddington toll is counted and the causes fully established. But it will probably remain true that more lives would be "saved" if £1 billion were spent on improving road safety. It is even more probably true that, if the cost of ATP were to be recouped from higher fares, so driving more people on to the roads, the "waste" of lives would actually be greater. The real question, however, is about risk. Would we rather reduce the risks of road travel or those of rail travel? That ought to be a question of public policy, and the introduction of ATP a matter of public priorities. Nobody suggests that the installation of new traffic lights at a dangerous junction should be financed by some toll on passing motorists.

Why then should there be any question of rail safety being subject to commercial calculations, with passengers potentially bearing the costs? Such matters ought to be at the heart of an integrated transport policy. How sad that it takes a disaster on the scale of Paddington to concentrate our minds.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children