Safety, Accidents & weather problems

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8.12.90 phoned BBC Radio 2 (not broadcast)

Re the remark about a single snowflake bringing BR to a stand. She ought to leave the centrally heated studio & get on the trackside to a signalbox at 2.0 am or 6.0 am when cars skid off the roads. She & other fireside critics seem incapable of comprehending that 140,000 railway staff do not live on the premises. When others leave their cars at home because road conditions are difficult & might damage their cars, but descend as a hypercritical deluge on the railways, not one considers the dedication of those who have braved the worst to get to work (i.e. Railway staff).


In January 1991 the Daily Telegraph devoted 578 col. cms to the Cannon Street crash, in which one fatality was reported, and  5.5 col. cms to an M4 crash which killed five - 500 times as much per fatality. They listed rail accidents from 1952: 294 fatalities [eight pa], but did not compare them to 5,000 killed annually on roads, and the age of coaches, "which had twice per week examinations".

I wrote pointing out that the M4 disaster, by comparison, warranted 2,890 column cms. In road accidents neither the frequency of examinations - annually after the first three years for cars, nor the age of vehicles, nor car maintenance, found seriously wanting by Consumer surveys, are mentioned. When they did not publish my letter, I complained to the Press Complaints Commission. They informed the Telegraph, who wrote to me that they "did not think the coverage excessive given the particularly public circumstances and the very great number of commuters involved, although fortunately the death toll was very small". 

I wrote again: "Is there no public interest in road deaths? Perhaps if the media gave as much prominence to road accidents, as they have done in the past to rail accidents, some effective action may follow. Whilst many rail commuters were injured, doubtless they were happier being injured than killed in a road accident and the death toll was low because of the strength of rail vehicles, as is invariably the case. For example, in September 1986, a train travelling at about 100 mph collided at Colwich, Staffs with another train, causing one fatality. A similar collision on roads leaves scores dead".


21.5.92 letter to BBC (not broadcast)

Yesterday, the Govt imposed a 6 month time limit on BR to resolve the alleged safety problem with carriage doors. No similar time-scale was imposed on those concerned with the Manchester air disaster, the Herald of Free Enterprise, both of which, if media reports are correct, have still not resolved all problems, several years later. Today, I hear the MoT saying that BR will not be allowed to close stations without notice if they regard them as unsafe. MoT appears to have taken personal responsibility for ensuing fatalities & injuries. How can two such diametrically opposed decisions be made within 24 hours?


26.10.94 phoned BBC pm letters (not broadcast)

I have drawn your attention repeatedly, but in vain, to the disparate treatment of Transport safety. RoRo ferries operate despite condemnation by Naval Architects, the Minister pointing to "40m passengers carried safely". Mini buses operate without seat belts, a Minister referring to hundreds of thousands carried safely. Airlines were not compelled to provide external cameras & internal smoke-hoods following catastrophic fires. Super unleaded petrol causing thousands of cancer deaths is to be phased out over 2-3 years! BR carrying 790m safely was given six months to replace coach doors to prevent a few accidental deaths.


17.3.04 Independent (not published)

Noting the report (March 16) that British Transport Police are reducing numbers, may I suggest a means of making better use of the reduced complement. Throughout the 40 years that I was with railways, responsibility for determining the cause of rail accidents was vested with Operating Department management. They convened Joint Inquiries to establish the cause jointly with engineering departments concerned, even if the cause was apparent on site, within hours. There was no problem with parochialism. The findings were sent within days to Her Majesty's Inspectors of Railways, who may then convene a public inquiry which invariably confirmed our findings. Assumption of this specialised technical role, for which the Police were untrained, led to them having to be instructed in basics like signalling and the workings of the Automatic Warning System in the middle of their Inquiries. In my day, their role was confined to protecting the site from ghouls and thieves. Had a member of my Operating staff been so uninformed, he would have been found a job more suited to his limited talents. Moreover, having found the cause, the site was cleared and services resumed in days, not weeks. At the major derailment at Nuneaton in 1975, which blocked more lines than at Hatfield, I had services running again inside four days, and sent a comprehensive Inquiry Report to the Railway Inspectors two days later. The task should be reverted without delay.


4.10.94 The Times (Not published)

Dr. Dunstan's letter on reporting of road accidents, reminded me of the occasion when I wrote to the Daily Telegraph in 1991 regarding its disparate treatment of rail & road accidents. They devoted 578 col cms to one reported fatality in the Cannon St collision compared to 5.5 col cms for a m-way crash which killed 5 - a ratio of 500 times per fatality. They catalogued rail accidents from 1952, totalling 294 fatalities, 8 pa compared to 5000 pa on roads. They said they did not think coverage excessive "given the particularly public circumstances & the very great number of commuters involved, although fortunately the death toll was very small". I replied "the strength of rail vehicles, not good fortune, kept fatalities down & asked if there was no public interest in road deaths? Whilst rail commuters were injured, doubtless they were happier being injured in a rail accident than killed in a road accident". The attitude arises from an expectation, fostered by politicians that rail alone should be 100% safe, despite costs which inflate "losses". Other transport plead: too costly, market forces or diminishing returns.


20.10.00 fax Guardian (Not published)

It has been reported that the HSE will investigate whether there are grounds for prosecution. Surely, a manager or director must have personally decided to defer replacing the defective rail at Hatfield.  A.N. Other is not to blame. Ultrasonic testing is not a new development which replaces frequent visual checks. It was introduced by BR many years ago. Railtrack say that the last one was 9 months ago.  BR carried them out 3-4 times pa, in addition to visual checks 3-4 days per week. It is nonsense to blame past under-investment on this, the most modern of main lines. A former BR engineer told me they were not denied funds to maintain track at the level required for the speeds specified. Railtrack claim to invest more. A real comparison requires them to isolate track from other investment - shops, stations, property, carparks, etc., & deduct the profit element to contractors & sub-contractors and advertising of their plans. Noticeably, they refer to capital investment, but not current maintenance expenditure, which is equally important & should be compared on the same basis. In BR days, the section of line would have been closed to trains or a speed restriction imposed immediately pending replacement. Operating managers had no appeal against such a decision, nor did they seek one. Railtrack say renewals will affect punctuality. Under BR, schedules included recovery time for speed restrictions arising from renewals. My recent journeys reveal that train speeds do not reduce as hitherto. This leaves slack in the schedule, making achieving punctuality easy. As a non-engineer, I suggest a panel of retired railway civil engineers should be brought in to independently examine track & ultrasonic records. Neither the HSE nor Railtrack should undertake this task.  Both should be regarded as guilty until proved innocent, as BR, so frequently was.  


2.6.01 Jimmy Young Programme, BBC, 

I must dispute Dr. Mike Smith’s claim that air is the safest form of transport. The basis advanced - distance travelled per fatality - is actively promoted by the air lobby. As I pointed out in my book "Blueprints for Bankruptcy", which compared the disparity of transport safety standards required by Govt - "To show that air travel is safer than rail, distance travelled per fatality, on scheduled services - i.e. excluding Charter flights - has been compared to all rail travel, (which includes excursion & charter).  Life expectancy is based on time, not distance; on three score & ten years, not three score & ten thousand miles".  An examination of three books - "AIR TRAVEL - HOW SAFE IS IT ?" by Laurie Taylor, "AIR DISASTERS" by Stanley Stewart & "Crash Course" by Michael Prince - expose the myth. Most air accidents occur on landing & take-off. My book also mentions: Govt directives on railway safety, despite higher standards, were tougher than for other transport. They were given six months to resolve a complaint that coach door handles may have caused deaths.  "A H&SE investigation found that most falls from trains showed that alcohol or misbehaviour was a factor in one degree or another".  "No tight time limit was placed on alterations to ships, aircraft, coaches, lorries or cars following much heavier death tolls.  Bus seat belts had to await European legislation. Replying to calls for seat belt law in July 1994, a Minister said that hundreds of thousands are conveyed safely in mini buses. A Scandinavian RoRo disaster led to public concern. A Minister said that 40m passengers are carried safely each year across the Channel. Safety improvements at sea called for in 1990, will not be fully implemented until the year 2000, yet some experts say those standards are inadequate. Over 790m were conveyed safely each year by BR, but this went unremarked & did not prevent calls for action to prevent rare rail fatalities.  Govt intentions to limit coach speeds produced protests because 'coaches will have to share lanes with lorries', but this applies now - lorries do not have separate lanes. A media report in December 1994 said: 'It will operate in a similar way to existing restrictions on lorries, which are fitted with limiters'. In other words, a non event". Moreover, limiters do not prevent lorries or PSV's from exceeding speed limits below 60 mph. Railway costs are increased by level crossing safety improvements to reduce accidents arising mainly from undisciplined users. Highway costs are not subject to such pressures. Provision of safer pedestrian crossings is based on a restrictive formula. The hysteria which follows rare rail accidents is conspicuous by its absence at more road deaths. The road lobby claims that there are more road fatalities because of an interface between pedestrians & vehicles. That can be resolved by roadside fencing & automatic barriers - as railways are required by law to provide - the cost being borne by vehicle licences, since pedestrians were using roads long before motor vehicles existed.


2.7.04 fax Daily Telegraph (not published)

Journalist David Wragg (Letters, June 22) mentions “airlines kept flying whilst railways ground to a halt”. My recollections based on inside experience, are of airlines dumping passengers by the thousand onto nearest railway station, without warning, leaving BR to make best arrangements, & taking the flak from regular passengers as a consequence of severe overcrowding. His suggestion that closing the line north of Inverness would fund a crossing of the Firth of Forth is out of touch with Reality. The sums saved, even given the quintupling of railway subsidies since privatisation would probably cover a feasibility study, & make a modest contribution to compulsory purchase of some of the affected property, see “Britain’s Railways - The Reality”. His claims of higher load factors on airlines than railways, ignore that this is achieved through the appalling practice of bumping-off, which would never be permitted on railways.  (NB – the paper published the title of David Wragg’s book – therefore they could not have decided not to publish mine for referring to one of my books).


12.6.09 LTT (not published)

Paul Withrington must not make untenable claims. My book (Railway Conversion – the impractical dream) – which he has read, explains the issue of trespassing, which will not cease with conversion. I had to attend inquests into trespassers deaths; therefore, I know the facts. Trespassers are pedestrians taking a short cut, and will continue to do so if railways are converted. In all probability, the incidence will increase as pedestrians consider there is less risk, and deaths will increase as they dodge between more frequent traffic. Trains-potters do not trespass, but stand well back to catch loco numbers at 125mph or travel to main stations where trains are slowing down or stopping. Brigadier Lloyd, who initiated the conversion idea, acknowledged that trespassing would be a problem, but would be banned! Its’ statutory prohibition on railways has not prevented it.  


22.4.10 Daily Telegraph (not published)

I am staggered to hear a Transport Minister criticise anyone for having been ‘too cautious’ where passengers’ lives (and those on the ground below) may have been at risk. When I worked for BR, it was our policy that one could not be ‘too cautious’ where passenger safety was concerned. Experience of a journey by coach from Manchester to London in 1982 on the motorway confirmed my worst fears about their standards. Frequent swerves from lane to lane and tailgating were frightening. When we stopped en route for a break, the driver was asked at what speed he had been travelling – he said up to 90mph. On the return journey, a passenger drew the driver’s attention to a loud bang under the rear of the coach, to which he responded by saying ‘its probably a tyre’. The speed did not diminish until we stopped for a planned meal. Years later, I experienced the front of my vehicle being hit by a large chunk of tyre that had exploded on a juggernaut that I was overtaking on the M1. He must have seen the explosion in his mirror, but didn’t even slow down, I had to negotiate my way to the hard shoulder and stop to inspect for damage. The fitting of speed limiters has, of course, no effect when the authorised road speed limit is below 60 mph. The refusal of airlines to fit smoke-hoods and external cameras, of sea ferries to face up to design as the root cause of capsizing and of the authorities to fail to take strong action on tailgating defy belief. At the same time, the Transport Minister directed BR to fit locks within months on doors because half a dozen people had fallen out in 2-3 years. A Health & Safety Executive investigation found that ‘most falls from trains showed that alcohol or misbehaviour was a factor in one degree or another’.  We still await action on other forms of transport. You may depend on it that if anyone fails to warn of a risk to air passengers in any circumstances and one fatality is caused – much less hundreds if an aircraft came down on a city – all hell & bitter criticism will follow. The experts in this case were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. My response to one unqualified person who said a few days ago that he thought there was no danger from volcanic ash, was to plead that aircraft be routed over his house - not mine.



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