Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2003 16:40 UK

Rail safety views 'skewed', says minister

By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff

Derailed train at King's Cross
Dr Howells: Too much attention paid to derailments like this
The huge media coverage of even the most minor rail accident - while road deaths are largely ignored - distorts people's views of train safety, according to Transport Minister Kim Howells.

In an interview for BBC News Online, Dr Howells blamed the "chattering classes" who did not use trains for spreading the impression that overseas rail networks were superior to Britain's.

He also urged councils to do more to encourage cycling and challenged "tired" comparisons about environmental effects of cars and trains.

The lorry road user charge, which will charge heavy goods drivers for distances travelled and offset the costs for British firms, was a "great pilot".

The government "is looking very seriously" at a car charging system - but will not make a decision until after the lorry scheme begins in three years time.

'Always risks'

On the railways, Friday is the third anniversary of the Hatfield crash, which killed four people.

Dr Howells stressed the high safety standards on British railways, saying people were more at risk during their journey to the station rather than when on a train.

Kim Howells will answer your questions in a LIVE interactive forum on Friday 17 October at 1530 BST/ 1430 GMT

"We've got a duty to run and monitor the safest railway possible," he said. "But any train that moves across any piece of track runs risks.

"And the notion that you can run a railway that hasn't got any risks is, well, it's a very odd one I think."

The "big achievement" of cutting the number of workers killed on the tracks often went unnoticed, he said.

Asked if his remarks suggested too much was done after Hatfield, he replied: "It depends I suppose on your perspective.

"If you are a relative of someone who lost someone they loved, you probably believe that expenditure doesn't matter - that you simply have to construct a fail-safe railway, which I'm saying is impossible to construct."

Public perception

He believed the government had the right balance between safety spending on roads and rail.

It is public perception he believes is "skewed" with people focusing on railways whether there were casualties or not, while there were 3,500 annual road deaths.

"When a train came off the rails at King's Cross three weeks ago, the photograph was on the front page of every single newspaper.

There's a kind of perception around that somehow we're worse off than any other country
Kim Howells
"And yet at almost exactly the same time there was a horrible crash in which two drivers were killed near where the M1 and the M6 meet. I think there were 16 vehicles involved altogether. It hardly got a mention."

That illustrated the "great contrast" between how "relatively minor" rail accidents were viewed compared with the thousands killed and critically injured on the roads.

The Paddington Rail Survivors' Group called the minister's safety remarks "provocative, ill-timed and ill-conceived".

Elsewhere in the interview, Dr Howells said there was "no question" rail punctuality had declined after Hatfield.

"But that's because we're spending unprecedented amounts of money in repairing the rail network and in renewing it," he said.

That could not be done on a busy railway "without some dislocation and delay", he said, insisting improvements were already being noticed.

'Chattering classes'

Dr Howells said it was difficult to believe polls suggesting people thought things had at best got no better.

"There's a kind of perception around that somehow we're worse off than any other country when it comes to transportation.

"That's not my experience in other countries. And in all the comparisons which are done between countries our transportation system emerges very well.

Kim Howells

"The problem starts when every journalist that I know in the world defines the French railway system as the high speed TGV. "

British regional cross-country trains were better services than similar services in France, he argued.

"The public in this country - the travelling public as opposed to the chattering classes who never use trains - their perception is a very different one in fact.

"They rely on the service and generally it offers a very good service and we want to improve it."

Spending grip

The rail regulator on Friday said the UK needs an extra 8bn of public money over five years.

Speaking ahead of that announcement, Dr Howells said the government would look very carefully at the regulator's proposals.

But he denied there was any black hole in rail funding and argued that Network Rail had got a "grip" on spiralling costs, bringing much better value for money.

He was confident too that by next spring - 18 months after its formation - Network Rail would have made its promised noticeable difference.

This month contractor Jarvis gave up day-to-day track maintenance and Dr Howells said Network Rail could take over those duties.

He stressed, however, that the government needed private sector help.

"I don't want the City to think we're heaving a sigh of relief when a very important company pulls out."

Green comparisons

Dr Howells said many of the old comparisons between the "greenness" of railways and roads were "very tried".

"If you're running an empty railway carriage around the country, you're using a lot of diesel and a lot of electricity and often to questionable effect if there's nobody or very few people in that carriage," he says.

Car jams
Car sharing is an "interesting concept"
That did not mean that cars were necessarily greener than trains, he said.

But fuel efficiency improvements had to go into arguments about encouraging more environmentally friendly commuting.

Car sharing and car pooling were both interesting ideas which should be in local transport plans alongside cycling and bus provision, he said.

Some councils were imaginative over cycling schemes, but the nationwide picture was "patchy".



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