Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Let the Train Take the Strain

As everyone knows, there was a massive accident on the M5 near Bridgewater on Friday. I have driven that bit of motorway many times, usually in a crappy old car that I couldn't afford to service as often as I should. For anyone not familiar with the region, the M5/A30 is the main road link between the two ends of the South-West.

I have seen several people on the news describe that bit of motorway as 'safe'. I would not describe it as safe. It is frequently overcrowded, prone to bunching around junctions, causing drivers to go from 70-80mph to stationary in the space of a few hundreds yards, only to speed away and grind to a halt again, unpredictably. That part of Somerset is extremely flat, and the motorway is exposed to all the weather which sloughs in straight off the Bristol Channel. Strong winds, mist and torrential rain are unremarkable. Anyone who doesn't believe the South-West sometimes has really ferocious weather has only been here in the holiday season.

So, in short, although most people take it for granted, driving around the South-West is not 'safe'. A few weeks ago, I was sat in a cafe, when the woman at the table next to me began telling a friend about a horrific accident she had been involved in. I soon realised that this was in fact an incident I'd seen on the news. Some of the details she described (without rancour, I might add) were much sadder and more distressing than had been on the news. She wasn't telling them to me, so I won't repeat them.

Personally, I find it extremely odd that in a time of health and safety mania, when events are often banned on the grounds someone might trip over a lamp-post, people still get in cars in the assumption that it is 'safe'.
West Coast Main Line: Fast, Safe, and Ludicrously Expensive
There is one way to get from one end of the South-West to the other in almost total safety, and that is by train. On Saturday, I started wondering about the relative safety of road and rail. You would think, in a risk-obsessed nation, that these figures would be widely available. You might expect, perhaps, that the train companies would use it as a selling point. In fact, the only way I could get the figures was by phoning up a friend who happens to be an ex-employee of the statistics office of the Department of Transport. Even then, once she had located the reports, it was only possible to make meaningful comparisons by doing more number-crunching out of a huge spreadsheet. So in short, the government are not shouting about this information.

The fact is that over the last 5 years, 1 person has died as a result of a rail accident. Road accidents in that time claimed 14,079 lives. In case you think its 14709 times more dangerous to travel by car, it isn't, because people do more mileage by car than train. In fact, its almost possible to make a comparison, because they don't measure comparable statistics. Total figures for rail deaths include things like people falling out of doors, off platforms, over other people's luggage, and choking to death on over-priced shrink wrapped sandwiches. So it's hard to work out the actual figures, partly because they don't seem keen that you do.

Car adverts always bang on about how the car is a safe and secure environment. The act of getting in, belting up, locking the doors makes you feel so. But the fact is you are at the mercy of any loon in the next lane. I am a safe driver, but I absolutely can't guarantee I am driving a safe car. There are many people out there in decent cars, who aren't even slightly decent drivers. So the illusion of safety is exactly that: you are in fact 14709 times less likely to die in the hands of a bunch of trained professionals who have qualifications and checks and tea-breaks and unions and managers and engineers and all that tedious malarkey that the Daily Mail despise, than you are piloting your BMW through the rain past Bridgewater.

As I said, the government don't advertise this. Last thing that they want you to do is swarm onto the nation's rail network, which is already groaning at the seams. Building more capacity into the rail network costs money. And the train companies, who receive hefty subsidies to run this network, have no incentive to invest. They already get loads of money from the taxpayer for their shoddy, over-priced trains.

There is capacity within the rail network (longer trains would be a start) but no real incentive for any companies to use it. They would rather milk a captive market, which is commuters, and business travellers, whose companies buy the tickets. A return from Bristol to Plymouth costs £49. That's 8 hours at the minimum wage. They could sell tickets at off-peak times more cheaply, but by and large, don't. Passengers are annoying: they tend to clog up doors, complain about the vile shrink-wrapped sandwiches, and delay trains, which rely on punctuality statistics to gain a wedge of subsidy. So its easier to sell tickets at middle-class prices, as a middle-class privilege, leaving the rest of the oiks to swerve through the squalls on the Somerset levels, hoping their £300 motor doesn't disintegrate. Cheers, guys.

While I find statistics quite interesting, I appreciate this is horrifically boring for most people. I just think that if people actually knew how much difference this might make to so many lives, they might stop whinging about petrol prices and start whinging at the government to do something about our over-priced, inadequate rail system, instead.

Oh, and please support the Fair Fares Campaign.

Thank you.

Photo (c) London Evening Standard

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