Railway managers are unable to reach proper decisions about how much to spend on train safety - because they have no idea what level of safety is acceptable to the public, says a report.
The public do not understand how safe the railways are
The report to the Rail Safety and Standards Board - a not-for profit company owned by the railway industry - says managers should find out if people really want to spend tens of millions of pounds on safety systems, when it would be cheaper to save lives on the roads.
The report was commissioned to find out if rail bosses are making the right decisions about improving rail safety. It firmly concludes that they are not.
The authors say people do not fully trust rail safety for two reasons.
First, they do not believe that the industry as a whole is competently run.
Secondly, they do not understand how safe the railways really are.
The authors say there is so much hype over train crashes that most people do not realise fatal accidents have been reduced every decade for the past 70 years.
There were 8.8 fatal crashes a year in 1940s, but only one per year in the 2000s.
Fewer passengers have died since privatisation than in the same period before privatisation - 97 deaths compared to 127.
They say if the public realised it cost taxpayers £10m to save each life with the new train warning system TPWS, but as little as £100,000 to save a life with safety measures on the roads, they might prefer to invest public money differently.
Tony Taig, the main author of the report, said surveys of the same group of people could produce wildly differing results.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "When they go out and research people's views systematically people always say they would like a better balance between road and rail.
"If on the other hand after a severe accident you go and ask people would you like us to have in the UK the kind of systems they have in other countries that would have prevented that, they say yes to that too.
"They are trying to juggle these very different sorts of feedback that come in very different circumstances and push politicians and decision-makers in different directions depending what's happened recently."
Maureen Kavanagh, chair of the Safe Trains Action Group, who lost her son in the 1997 Southall crash, said any argument over priorities was redundant because of the billions that had been diverted to provide profits for private rail companies.
"You can ask questions and you can juggle statistics and get the right answers in every case.
"The government has just thrown away billions and billions of pounds in subsidies to the train operating companies since privatisation.
"If that money had been spent in investment on the railways and on the roads we would have a better system on the roads and rail travel.