Did privatisation make rail safer?

Observations on risk analysis

It has been the month when we remembered the Paddington train crash (fifth anniversary) and the Hatfield crash (fourth anniversary). And fresh in many people's minds would have been The Permanent Way, Sir David Hare's National Theatre play about the perils of rail privatisation.

But has privatisation, whatever its other drawbacks, really been so dangerous? Last year, there were a billion journeys on Britain's railways - the most in four decades. Each weekday, there were 20,000 train services to choose from. Yet there was not a single passenger fatality.

Moreover, a new study claims that the Conservatives' sell-off accelerated an improvement in rail safety that began when the age of steam drew to a close in the 1960s. Andrew Evans, professor of transport risk management at Imperial College, says that 311 rail travellers and workers have died since privatisation, whereas 429 deaths would have been expected if previous trends had continued.

The most serious types of accident are collisions, derailments and overruns. Evans calculates that, in the five years to 1971, there were 11 of these per billion train kilometres. In subsequent periods under British Rail, the figure fell to 6.4, 4.7, 5.5 and 3.7. In the five years from privatisation in 1994, the rate fell to 2.7, then to 1.2 between 1999 and 2003.

So why has the industry suffered such a collapse in public confidence? Stories, Evans argues, speak louder than statistics. In the Selby crash of 2001, a device preventing drivers from shooting red lights was switched off. At Hatfield, a broken rail had been noted but not repaired. Potters Bar in 2002 was down to a faulty set of points - which were under the care of the private engineering firm Jarvis. Evans accepts that privatisation shared the blame for these tragedies. But, he says, such narratives are useful only up to a point. Any accident is the result of a chain of events involving many people and multiple actions. Changing just one of them - in this case, the organisational structure of the railways - could have prevented it.

Since privatisation, every rail company has had to assemble a written "safety case" analysing all potential hazards and how it acts to mitigate them, in accordance with a far more explicit system than before. Such is the culture of caution in the industry that the government is about to strip the Health and Safety Executive of its responsibility for the railways - largely for being too risk-averse. If the roads, on which roughly ten people die every day, faced the same scrutiny as the railways, there would be a cleverly hidden speed camera on every corner, a drink-drive limit of zero and a flat speed limit of 20mph in every town and city.

Privatisation may have made Britain's trains unreliable, expensive and confusing. But by any realistic measure, it has not made them dangerous.

Andrew Clark is transport correspondent for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, America - God, gays and guns