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Monday, 11 October, 1999, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Is rail travel becoming less safe?
graph train fatalities
Train fatalities are horrific, but more die on the roads
The issue of rail safety was going to have been firmly on the agenda even before the rail crash near Paddington in London.

Questions over whether the accident could have been prevented will inevitably be to the fore as the inquiry into the Southall rail crash, which claimed seven lives, unfolds.

London Train Crash
The possibility that travel by train is becoming more perilous will no doubt be closely examined, as will the role of the operators in making it as safe as possible.

Signal incidents rising

Probably the biggest threat to the safety of rail passengers, according to statistics collated by the BBC's analysis and research unit, is Signal Passed at Danger (Spad) incidents, one of which resulted in the Southall disaster.

Spad incidents are rising again after at least five years of steady decline. The HSE's deputy chief inspector of railways, Dr Bob Smallwood, said in September: "We found significant weaknesses in industry systems and in how effectively they are followed."

In the 1990s, 17 people have been killed and 250 have been injured as a result of SPAD incidents. It is not yet clear whether the Paddington crash and its resultant fatalities were caused in this way.

'Shock impact of a serious accident'
By 2004, a new system of train protection will apply the brakes if a train passes certain red signals, and this is expected to cut by two-thirds the risk of harm from Spads and over-speeding.

However, the perception that rail travel is becoming less safe in general is not supported by statistics.

In 1998-1999, for the first time in five years, no passenger was killed in a train accident, although incidents did occur.

In 1997-1998, 10 deaths were recorded as a result of accidents on the rail network. Seven of those people died in the Southall crash, and two others died in two separate incidents involving cars stuck on level crossings.

Continually changing definitions

In comparison, many more people die on Britain's roads every year. Dr John Preston at Oxford University's Transport Studies Unit says that approximately 10 people die every day in the UK as a result of road accidents.

Serious accidents on the rail network remain rare, and in general terms, before today's incident, the annual rate of deaths on the railways has dropped back to the level of the early 1980s, before a spate of accidents which included the 1988 Clapham rail disaster in which 35 people died.

Figures, of course, are subject to continually changing definitions. Statistics after 1996 include new categories introduced after new accident reporting guidelines were introduced.

New indicators included reporting damage to drivers' cabs through falling objects and vandalism.

Even so, before the most recent accident, the trend in the 1990s was a gentle decline in the number of incidents.

rescuers at work
Serious rail accidents remain rare
Serious train incidents are defined as those collisions and derailments which affect passenger lines, and are therefore considered to be life threatening. They do not include incidents involving freight lines.

Media attention

Dr Preston told BBC News Online earlier this year that the perception of railway safety was to an extent based on the shock impact of a serious accident.

The nature of rail travel, as opposed to travel by road, means that a single accident may result in higher casualties and fatalities than individual road accidents. The road fatalites however, are much greater annually.

They are therefore more shocking, and attract more media attention than the much greater number of accumulated casualties and fatalities which happen on the roads every year.

See also:

11 Oct 99 | London train crash
05 Oct 99 | UK
05 Oct 99 | UK Politics
05 Oct 99 | UK
05 Oct 99 | Health
08 Oct 99 | UK
05 Oct 99 | UK
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