Magazine article The Spectator

Terrible Lessons

Magazine article The Spectator

Terrible Lessons

Article excerpt

Although millions of words - both well- and ill-informed, objective and prejudiced - have already been written on the subject, I must discuss the recent railway accident at Ladbroke Grove outside Paddington, not because it was so horrible but because of what it tells us about the state of public transport today. Besides, as L.T.C. Rolt wrote at the beginning of his classic study of railway accidents and safety precautions, Red for Danger, while complaining that 'all but the most lurid of road accidents pass without remark' while a mishap on the railways always makes the papers, 'such publicity is, in part at least, the price the railwayman pays for efficiency. If railway accidents were as frequent as road accidents they would soon lose their news value.'

The collision at Ladbroke Grove must be peculiarly distressing to anyone who loves railways as it ought not to have happened. Of course, an accident by definition is something unexpected and, in all human systems, what can go wrong will go wrong. God is not mocked, and, as Rolt wrote back in 1955, it is in 'this contrast between trivial error and terrible consequence that the drama of the railway accident lies'. But fires in carriages and driving through red signals, let alone two trains going in opposite directions on the same piece of track, ought to have been things of the past. Technical systems are there to prevent such things. As anyone who has sat at the front of an engineless multiple-unit train will know, a hooter or a bell will sound in the cab as the train approaches a signal to alert the driver. No longer - in theory - can a train run past a red signal unawares, as happened in that disaster of my childhood, the collision at Lewisham in 1957.

Over a century and a half through trial and error, a sophisticated technical system evolved in Britain's railways which conformed to the essential principle of being 'fail safe'. That is, if anything goes wrong, the train is brought to a halt by default. If a signal fails, it dunks to horizontal or goes red; if the continuous brake tube breaks, the vacuum goes and the brakes come on; if a driver fails to acknowledge the hooter telling him that he is passing a red signal, again, the brakes come on - automatically. And so on.

This last device, which failed to stop that westbound train from Paddington, is known as AWS - Automatic Warning System -- and was invented almost a century ago. After those two terrible accidents of the 1950s, at Harrow and Lewisham, the accident reports prepared by the chief inspecting officer stressed (yet again) that an AWS would have prevented them. And yet, a half century later, not only do the re-privatised companies complain that they cannot afford the much more sophisticated ATP - Automatic Train Protection - but they are not even using the existing systems properly. How sad that it should have been a train defiling the once-proud name of Great Western that caused the crash at Southall, for the old GWR had adopted its own system of automatic train control early this century - without government insistence - and had an admirable safety record. But that was not just owing to clever technology. I am not the first to quote the conclusion of an early survey on accidents which concluded that the company's exemplary record was partly due 'to the efficiency and esprit de corps of the staff'.

Now I don't want to make political points, for it is absurd to blame the Ladbroke Grove train crash on railway privatisation alone. …

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