Despite having heard the news of a fatal rail crash in Cumbria, I didn’t think twice about boarding a train this morning. In fact, it never occurred to me that I should think about it at all.
But now I see the sensationalist media have articles such as Crash is major blow for railways, with the front page of BBC News also carrying the lede “Trains on trial: How rail travel can recover from its first fatal crash in years”. So paradoxically, they are saying it’s a disaster for the railways as people will be too scared to take the train, while at the same time pointing out the truth: rail travel is extremely safe, to the extent that no-one has died on the railways for a long time.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I was incensed by a ridiculous comment on the BBC’s Have Your Say page:
It may be statistically less likely to be involved in train crash than a car crash but the fact of the matter is most train crashes are the result of a maintenance person not doing their job properly or a train driver being too tired. I don’t mind dying for my own negligence, but I’ll be damned if I’m to die for someone else’s. Call me old fashioned, but I avoid trains because I don’t like putting my life into the hands of train company’s employees. —Matt Marshall
Putting aside the fact that only one person has been killed in a rail accident in more than two years, compared to thousands of people who are killed in road accidents each year, let’s consider who is most likely to cause a road accident. If a car driver crashes into a ditch or a wall, it’s probably his own fault, although it could be a mechanical fault, faulty brakes, steering, etc. which could be down to negligence on the part of the manufacturer or mechanic. Other accidents will usually involve two vehicles, so statistically, it’s equally likely that a crash is going to be caused by another driver. In fact, if Mr Marshall is a reasonably competent driver, it’s far more likely any road accident he’s involved in will be down to someone else’s negligence – after all, there are a lot of bad drivers out there.
The last deaths in a rail accident in the UK were in November 2004, and on that occasion the crash was caused by a car that had been stopped on the track, apparently for the driver to commit suicide. The worst rail crash in recent years, the crash at Selby in 2001, was caused by a tired driver sure enough, but unlike the driver Mr Marshall imagines, the tired driver at Selby was a car driver, who lost control of his vehicle and stopped on the track, resulting in 10 deaths. (The guilty motorist, Gary Hart, was later jailed for five years.)
Returning to this week’s accident, while my consolations go to the victims and their families, I have to agree with what many of the emergency services and other commentators have said on seeing images of the crash scene: following a crash at 95 miles per hour, with carriages on their side, up in the air, or turned through 180 degrees, I’d feared the number of fatalities would have been far greater. But it appears that the design of the Pendolino train, with all its in-built safety features, meant the carriages remained intact, reducing the injuries sustained. In the past, I’ve heard criticisms of the Italian-designed Pendolino – that it is far too heavy and therefore inefficient – but following this crash, I shall certainly look on it in a new light. While we should of course be concerned that poor maintenance of the track could have caused such an accident, and insist that maintenance procedures are improved so that the likelihood of a crash are reduced, why must we consider this another “failure” of the railways? In fact, the performance of the Pendolino in a high-speed crash should be seen as a success, meaning some good decisions were taken in choosing replacement rolling stock. Nothing can ever reduce the risk of an accident to zero, as rail expert Christian Wolmar puts it:
[The Pendolinos] have a very high standard of resistance to accidents but one has to recognise that they go very fast and that nothing can prevent some damage happening when accidents happen at that speed.
It remains far safer to travel by train than by road. It is only the public’s lack of understanding of risk, and the coverage of rail accidents in the media, that cause people to think otherwise.