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Monday, 25 June, 2001, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
After Paddington: Is enough being done?
Railtrack has been accused of a "lamentable failure" which was partly to blame for the Ladbroke Grove crash, in which 31 people died.
The government-sponsored report by Lord Cullen confirmed that the primary cause of the crash was the failure of the Thames Trains driver to stop at a red signal as he left London.
He also levelled criticism at train company officials and signal workers, and pointed to failures in driver training at Thames Trains.
Lord Cullen says he's made 89 safety recommendations to prevent a repeat of the tragedy at Paddington two years ago.
But is enough being done to improve rail safety? Do you feel safe on Britain's railways?
This Talking Point debate is now closed. Read your comments below.
There are doubtless many causes underlying the state of UK railways and no doubt the incidents have gone some way to accelerate the process of renewal and change. All I can say is that as a one time commuter and someone who would have been in the Paddington crash had I not been abroad that week, its psychological effect on me was to lead to (early) retirement in a land where, however astronomic the bill to taxpayers, the trains are safe, run on time and yes, are the pride of the nation.
As a disabled person it is impossible to travel by car, coach or plane. Yes, work does need to be done on the rail network but it is so run down now that re-nationalising it is not the answer, by doing that the government could not afford the repairs. I think we need to make the best of a bad job here with a public/private partnership.
Jim Walker, UK
Britain's railways are attempting to recover from problems caused by years of neglect and underfunding pre-privatisation. Ideally the entire systems should be replaced by new track, points, etc. That is not simply feasible. The railways are slowly improving but as usual Britain's train users want it all done yesterday, with no disruption and at no cost. The issue of safety is vastly important and Railtrack successfully addressed that by performing minor miracles before, during and after the Christmas period to replace and upgrade parts of the system. Well done to them. What punishes them is the ludicrous penalties that they are forced to pay to lazy, corporate train operating companies who are more interested in profit than passenger. When the operating companies start to help Railtrack rather than hinder them progress will be more marked. That said, Mr. Corbett's payoff is outrageous.
When I lived in England from 1988-1990 I owned a car (there were no trains to take me to work and back). I had the honour of undergoing an MOT inspection which my poor little mini failed with flying colours. The car was declared unroadworthy. Perhaps the rail lines should undergo a type of MOT. No trains running until the problems were fixed might get some managers attention. The problem is that no trains running would cause all the money to start running, running away from investment in the rail lines. I was raised in California, and will tell you that travel by rail beats travel by car hands down.
P. Boorman, UK
Partly in response to Di Stewart, one of the more regrettable results of having rail accident enquiries chaired by lawyers instead of engineers (as was the tradition in the past) is that whole lists of recommendations (89 in this case) are produced rather than just four or five important ones. Stanley Hall, a respected rail safety writer, notes this in his book "Hidden Dangers", (highly recommended reading for all those with a concern for rail safety). He also notes that enquiries into SPAD-derived accidents such as this ought to produce just one recommendation: Do something to stop drivers passing signals at danger!
In reply to those believing investing more into highways as a solution to your railway ills: Houston, is only serviced by superhighways and buslines (soon ONE metrorail line to boot). Commuter rail sure does seem more reasonable when you're stuck motionless in one of twelve lanes on the expressway.
Ralph Benker, UK, ex Germany
If the British legal system is not capable of delivering justice to the people who caused the deaths of 31 human beings, then something is dangerously wrong. This culture of impunity for corporate criminals sets a dangerous precedent.
As a former daily commuter to London, I would like to think that passenger safety has always been of paramount importance. What astonishes me is the fact that Lord Cullen found a whopping 89 areas of concern. What gives - are the railway chiefs too busy counting their profits to actually assess and implement safety needs in order to protect passengers?
The day passengers were called "customers", was the day things began to go badly wrong.
M Pearson, England
If the train had only just been invented, anyone who advocated setting up a network would be a laughing stock. Travel on a vehicle that weighs hundreds of tons, takes miles to stop, runs on fixed metal rails giving it no ability to manoeuvre and forcing it regularly across the path of oncoming traffic. Driven by people who thanks to a strong union take no responsibility for their own actions and appear to need high technology to force them to do their own job properly! The entire train network should be scrapped and replaced with roads!
As a regular user of the railways I never even consider safety when I set out on my journey. My real concern is will the trains actually turn up and get me to my destination reasonably close to time. Last night we waited for over two hours for a train home from work (they should run three an hour through this station) because one line had had points failure and the other had had two trains cancelled. We ended up calling a taxi and with four sharing the journey was cheaper than the single train fare.
Whether the government then wants to help out the commuter financially is another matter, though I don't personally see why the London commuter should receive financial assistance while living in a house that none of the rest of us can afford, precisely because the government is subsidising the gravitation of work towards London above other cities, which creates all the inherent transport problems in the first place. The government should step back, and merely demand safety. The commuters will decide the rest.
I know I am off topic here. But we really do have our priorities wrong.
Of course it is tragic that 31 people died nearly 2 years ago, and 4 nearly a year ago. And of course lessons should be learnt.
But the British public seem to think that, at the same time, it is fine that 10 people die on our roads every day, fine that the most common form of death of UK children aged 5-14 is road accident.
This is where we should be concentrating our anger and resources. I wonder how many people who vent their anger at the Railtrack themselves put others at danger by driving over the speed limit?
Raymond Rapp, UK
As usual, people are
quite able to remember
a golden age of rail
travel that actually
Rail travel on the
British Rail was
trains were routinely
filthy and late.
But never mind. Your
readers can go on
imagining that only
Britain today has
trouble with its
trains, and every
other country and
every other time
As a Connex South Central victim, sorry, "consumer", I feel annoyed that we are packed in like cattle on trains that are constantly late, yet such corporations still claim surpluses and pay out to shareholders (overwhelmingly other corporations not small shareholders), and still ask for us to subsidise their little scheme with our taxes.
"Public Bad, Private Good" seems to be the conservative dogma that New Labour is obsessed with.
All people who have to travel by train will know that our filthy, decaying, overcrowded and expensive rail transport system is a clear indication that not enough is being done. Since privatisation the trains have considerably deteriorated and anyone who whines that I am only expressing this view because I'm being political and what about improving our roads, clearly does not travel by train but sticks to their cars and who can blame them. I also resent the fact that executives are making huge profits out of my misery of travel.
The state of the railways in the UK is a national disgrace. Compared to rail services in northern Europe, they're a scandalous rip-off. The Tories privatised the industry and made a handful of directors very rich indeed. In my opinion, the hands of the old Tory administration and those few 'lucky' fat-cat rail directors (who walked away with more than £50m each) are still covered in the blood of those poor unfortunate tax-paying passengers who died at Paddington and Hatfield. Will they ever be held to account for their actions? Probably not. Shame on them all.
Anthony from England has it right when
he says that the number of people
killed in the Ladbroke Grove train
crash is the same number of people
killed each day in car crashes. The
train is a much safer method of
travel than the car. The blame can
not be laid entirely at Railtrack's door.
Britain has the world's oldest railway
system and because it is so old, it
requires a LOT of upkeep and the
level of upkeep needed is so great
that it would involve frequent
shutdowns of major rail lines, such
as the East Coast Main Line, so
improvements can not be made
As I have said before in these pages on this topic, let us try and keep a sense of perspective. It is still much, much safer to travel by rail than by road. Any initiative that deters people from travelling by rail will presumably add further congestion, danger and accidents to the road "system". Please let us not have another hysterical reaction such as followed the Hatfield train crash last year. If it really is necessary to lay blame somewhere then blame those politicians that have, over the past twenty or thirty years, been closely involved in deliberately under-funding British Rail for purely political ideological reasons.
Yes I'm a shareholder in Railtrack, and also a shareholder in The Watercress Steam Line, Eurotunnel and part owner of 3 ex British Rail Steam engines. Most private Railtrack shareholders are serving or retired railwaymen or railway enthusiasts. The others are big institutions which look after everyone's pensions and mortgage endowment policies. Any accident makes our share value fall, so we have a vested interest in safety surely. What the railways need is investment, lots of it, but I doubt if any government can raise enough by taxation. There were 233,729 road accidents involving personal injury (320,283 victims) last year in the UK, with 35,607 involving death or serious injury. But no one seems to care.
John Atkins, England
If the technology exists to make it impossible for a train to pass a red signal, why is it not installed on our trains?
Compared to trains in Russia or the former Soviet Union, the UK trains are safer and better. But what do I know - I'm from the third world.
The Chinese authorities have executed company officials in recent years for lesser incompetence. As an hourly-paid IT contractor, the rail companies cost me so much lost working time and money, not forgetting stress and lost home life, that the thought of ultimate sanction against these people became rather attractive. It makes me angry to read reports about rail franchise companies planning to recoup lost profits from Railtrack when ordinary commuters, and their employers have no such redress.
Richard , UK
The issue of the UK railways is nothing short of a national outrage.
Clearly the days of Steam Locomotives, changing at Ringwood or crossing the magnificent Waverley line are behind us. (If you are concerned as I am please read the "Great Railway Conspiracy" by Michael Henshaw).
We only need to peep across the Channel to see how it should be done and I am not talking just about the French system which is heavily in debt. The Swiss system could be ours if the will is there.
The Beeching report at the time seemed liked a nightmare and has proved to be fatally flawed. Will we ever learn?
And no I am not some frustrated spotter.
To be quite frank, I've been utterly dismayed by some of the things said today. Grounding the railways until they can be proved safe? What kind of lunacy is that? We decide to push people into the inherently safe area of road transport. The amount of money being spent on extra safety systems might only save 31 lives once in a blue moon. Just think how many lives could be saved on the roads with that much. That's not to say that money should not be spent on rail safety - lets just get things into perspective though, and that could begin with a far more balanced opinion on the dangers of road travel by the media, the BBC included.
Miles Barnwell, UK
This "public sector good private sector bad" is ridiculously naive. It has almost become a dogma, that public ownership is the great all-embracing panacea to the rail network's ills. To suggest that politicians can be trusted to make the necessary investment when the concept of higher taxation has become almost taboo in the current political process. Where do all these champions of public sector ownership think the money is going to come from? There is an awfully long queue at the door of the Treasury, and I don't think many ministers will be keen to relinquish their place in it.
We have the railway system that we have asked for at the ballot box. If we want a modern, efficient, safe system, then we have to pay for it, either directly (much higher fares, commuters complain) or indirectly (higher taxes, we all complain).
Until we get more adult about how we want our society to be (high tax, high spend social democracy or low tax, low spend like the US) we will continue to have these debates.
As an aside, does anyone out there know how safe our railways really are, compared to either the "good old days" of nationalised BR, or compared to other European countries?
Predictably, we're getting the cry of the politically-motivated who, for some reason, believe that a publicly-owned body can, somehow, do no wrong. What they fail to realise is that the incompetent (a word used both by Lord Cullen this week and Tom Windsor last week) management from the old British Rail remain in control. To answer the question above: yes, enough is now being done, but it's started too late. To take issue on one earlier contribution: trap points are provided only on goods lines or sidings, and this practice continues. If they had been provided beyond SN109 as suggested, the Thames train would have been derailed - almost certainly into the path of the approaching HST, and the accident still would have occurred. This is why they are not normally provided on passenger lines.
Little sympathy as I have with Railtrack, it is not the company but the system that is at fault. Most of the railway companies will never be able to make a profit without government subsidies, so how can they ever deliver the kinds of returns their shareholders want? British Rail suffered from under-funding and poor management - but at least they couldn't pass the buck, and at least they weren't under constant pressure to cut corners on safety in order to hike share prices. And I'm sure most employees felt they were helping deliver a service to the nation, rather than a profit to their fat cat bosses. It is a shame the Tories can no longer be brought to task for their cynical and sub-incompetent privatisation of the railways.
While the shareholders of Railtrack continue to receive dividends and its managing directors are paid massive salaries then the answer is no. Every single penny Railtrack makes should be spent on investment of its infrastructure. Until that happens Railtrack can't claim to be increasing safety.
R. Gaze, UK
Just one more "pass the buck" report. Another judge giving yet another fat cat profiteering organisation a "telling off". We need the people who make the decisions to be made responsible for their actions; you'd soon see a change in attitudes to safety if company directors were
held responsible for injuries to their passengers......
I'm sure we never had as many
rail disasters under British Rail. I
know we used to slag it off terribly
but I think that re-nationalisation is
the only solution for rail in the UK. I
just hope those greedy Railtrack
shareholders can sleep easily at
night knowing that the money in
their bank accounts doesn't really
have to be spent on improving safety!
Jeff Ling, USA (expat)
Why isn't anyone questioning how the drivers can mistake a red light for a green one? It's pretty simple. Will we now see an improvement in the standards of 'workers' in what is actually a simple job?
The idea that the railways, or indeed any other transport system, can be 100% safe is patently absurd. Already the expenditure on this minority form of transport is way out of line with any sensible analysis of the cost/ benefit of additional expenditure on safety. There are thousands of people being injured on our nation's roads EVERY year but there are no siren voices for fantastic sums of money to be spent on major safety improvements to this principal mode of transport in our country.
Mark B, UK
The principal safeguard missing at Paddington was the trap points traditionally provided at such a point to deflect a train overrunning a signal into the path of another train. While this may not have entirely prevented an accident, it would surely have reduced the severity. This safeguard has been a standard requirement of HMRI for 100 years or more. Railtrack has been systematically omitting these points from remodelled track layouts on the grounds of cost. The new Euston layout is similar.
Until Railtrack is compelled to implement such basic and obvious safety requirements what trust can there be in the proposed 'hi-tech' solutions? One cannot have safety at any cost, but surely we should proceed on the basis of the doctor's watchword - 'do no further harm'.
The rail industry including government and parliamentary bodies has seriously let the nation down. This unholy alliance has to be continually pushed to make the smallest of changes. There is no government or industrial leadership. This is not about political dogma but about providing the UK with a credible rail system. We will now get the usual platitudes of regret from those charged with sorting the mess out BUT nothing fundamental will change. It hasn't before so why should it now.
When it comes to the railways, it's a case of profit before people. How the Conservatives can ever criticise this Government for their transport policy is beyond me. Putting the railways into private hands was despicable. And yet no one will ever say it was a mistake because no one can ever say that the free market was wrong.
With the price of Railtrack shares now, the Government should buy it back. If they do not then there should be no subsidy to Railtrack. You can just imagine the shareholders running their hands together in delight!
I would have to rephrase the question and ask, "Is anything being done?". Commuter trains are still packed like cattle trucks so even a minor mishap has the potential to turn into a full-scale disaster.
19 Jun 01 | UK
Crash report blames 'lamentable' failures
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