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Friday, 8 October, 1999, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
How safe is the UK compared to Europe?
Could an accident like the Paddington rail crash happen in France or Germany? Frazer Goodwin from the European Federation for Transport and the Environment explains how the UK compares to its European neighbours in terms of rail safety.

How widely used in Europe are the safety systems ATP and TPWS?

The systems are different in differing countries, and as a result the terms and definitions do change. What is clear is that more sophisticated systems that automatically stop a train after a danger signal are more common on continental Europe than in the UK.

Systems that stop any train passing a signal at danger are widespread, though the degree to which drivers have the ability to override the system does vary.

London Train Crash
Is it the case that rail travel is safer in other European countries?

Both France and Germany have automated systems analogous to ATP. However that has not prevented some serious accidents in both countries.

The recent high speed rail accident of the ICE train in Germany where it derailed and struck a road bridge for example, or the commuter train accident near Gare du Norde in France for example.

The problems with comparing accident rates between countries is that such comparisons in part reflect the type of transport system and settlement patterns in the country itself .

For example Spain's good record in terms of accident deaths per billion passenger km will in part be due to modernisation and investment and partly due to the nature of the routes Spain has, many of which are long intercity connections (resulting from Spain's low population density) and the low level of train commuting compared to other countries.

So how has ATP influenced rail safety in Europe?

It is very difficult to know how it has affected safety because you don't know what would have happened had these countries not had automated systems.

What is clear is that countries that have invested heavily in their rail systems, and who continue to do, so generally have a good safety record.

For example Switzerland has a good record on safety and is continuing to improve the system, safety improvements being but one part of a major upgrading and infrastructure extension programme the Swiss have for their railways.

The cost for this programme is huge and these funds are being raised mostly by a combination of new road user tolls and increased road fuel taxes.

How does Britain compare to other European countries in terms of rail fatalities?

Looking to the European Commission's statistics the UK is at mid table mediocrity - 9th out of 15 in terms of fatalities per billion annual passenger kilometres.

This is disappointing for the UK because it does far better in a ranking for road safety - although there are of course far more road deaths than there are rail deaths.

Are safety systems like ATP the answer for the British rail network?

No technology can be THE answer. Technology will always only provide part of the solution in decreasing risks in complex systems.

The nuclear power industry has long recognised that the human factor that operates, maintains and checks any automated technology is frequently the weak link when an emphasis is placed exclusively on safety via technology.

For railways this means proper investment not just in technology for improved safety, but in the industry's human resources as well. Staff training, morale, remuneration, and motivation are all key elements in a package the includes new technology such as ATP.

But it will be also important to continue the refinement and improvement of the overall safety system after ATP has been fitted, if it is.

Technology does not solve problems on its own and over reliance on technology can itself cause problems.

BBC correspondent Angus Roxburgh:
reports on rail safety in Europe
See also:

07 Oct 99 | London train crash
08 Oct 99 | UK
08 Oct 99 | UK
08 Oct 99 | Talking Point
08 Oct 99 | UK
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