Monday, March 31, 2003

The cost of rail safety

BBC News reports today that the cost of running Britain's railways has doubled. 'Network Rail said spending on the railways in the next three years would be more than 6bn a year, compared with the 3bn originally expected.'

My friend's father (who shall remain nameless) is a railway engineering consultant with decades of experience. He is exasperated by the way in which safety measures are being implemented, out of all proportion to their benefit. Repairs that weren't previously regarded as necessary having to be done, work gangs working with excessive numbers of lookouts etc. Meanwhile, the actual function of the railway - getting people from A to B - crumbles.

Here's an interesting article about rail safety from Japan Railway and Transport Review [pdf format]. It makes the point that rail safety continues to improve in Britain, mainly due to removing 'slam door' trains from service and improving safety for the work gangs. However, the public's attention has been drawn to five major fatal accidents: Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, Great Heck and Potters Bar. The author, Richard Hope, looks at what effect privatisation had on each accident.

For example, Southall could have been prevented if the Automatic Warning System (AWS) had been repaired. It wasn't working at one end of the train. When the driver tried to get the train turned around, no-one was in a position to take responsibility so he had to travel without a warning system. The lack of a unified management system means repairs didn't get supervised which caused the Hatfield derailment.

But there are other factors which are screwing things up: the closure of tracks after accidents is much longer, both for the initial investigations and, in the case of Hatfield, for follow-up inspections and repairs on other areas of track. Areas of track taken out of service for repairs are greater due to safety concerns, especially with inexperienced contract staff. This means much greater compensation has to be paid to train operators. The cost of Advanced Train Protection is rising - to implement the new system will cost 14million per life saved, as opposed to 3million originally envisaged. All of this is the product of a new and almost certainly unhelpful obsession with safety.

Rail repair bill doubles, BBC News, 31 March 2003

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