ERA's first biennial report on railway safety is due to be published in the spring of 2008, and will - for the first time - bring together safety data from Europe's railways on a comparable basis.
'Everyone said "railways are safe", but no-one could prove it', comments the Head of the Safety Unit Anders Lundstrom. 'We will get a better picture by analysing the various indicators from the national safety authorities', although he admits that 'we have some problem with the data' as the first report is based on inputs supplied by individual agencies under the Rail Transport Statistics Regulation 2003 and 'some responses are missing'.
Having worked for DG TREN from 1999 to 2003 developing the Safety Directive in the Second Railway Package, Lundstrom is now spearheading its implementation.
'The directive paints an overall picture - common safety performance, with the industry publicly regulated rather than self-regulation by the incumbent operators. Transparency is a key issue.' The establishment of independent railway safety authorities has been 'a major step for some countries', he admits. And only about half a dozen member states had separate accident investigation agencies. Accepting that 'it is a big structural change', he notes that the Commission is taking enforcement action against 13 member states who have not yet completed the process of setting up national safety authorities.
But despite this slow progress, Lundstrom says ERA is now in a position to make safety information available to all regulators, which will help with benchmarking. 'There is a lot of good practice across Europe already. The data sets confirm that passenger safety is very high across Europe.' In 2005, 1464 people were killed in railway accidents across the then 25 member states, but only 62 (4%) died as a result of train accidents.
He estimates that 95% of railway fatalities are due to third parties, including road users at level crossings, trespassers or suicides. 'This huge impact of third parties is almost unique to railways - but the industry often denies any responsibility. And we can see that the risks are increasing, with higher speeds, greater use of level crossings, and so on. This is an area where we will put more emphasis than in the past.'
In 2006 ERA organised a seminar on level crossing safety, and Lundstrom is planning to do something similar for trespassers and suicides in 2008. 'We will look at best practice and recent research, raise awareness of prevention methods, and encourage people to take further measures, especially at hot spots and vulnerable sites.'
He admits that dealing with third parties 'is more difficult than traditional accidents; it's not just about engineering but the full spectrum of risk management. Engineering is easy because it is under the railway's own control. Now we are talking about people interacting with the railway, like road users or pedestrians, and that means working with other bodies - like local authorities, road authorities, and schools - in order to get the safety message across.'
Although third parties are the main concern, Lundstrom says 'there are still things we can do to improve traditional railway safety.' He points out that 'technical development usually leads to higher safety, if we talk about new trains, new infrastructure, modern traffic control systems and so on'. But any investment 'has to be driven by efficiency and quality - you cannot get a positive return on the safety benefits alone.'
One target is the new member states in Central and Eastern Europe, where there is a 'still a lot to do' and a substantial backlog of life-expired equipment requiring replacement. As an example, he suggests that 'replacement of old rolling stock could reduce the number of door-related fatalities, as has happened elsewhere'. And 'some EU funding for technical development is conditional on the railways implementing ERTMS' when updating their train control systems.
A first feedback session on the collated safety data was held in January. Recommendations have gone to the Commission for secondary legislation to harmonise certification requirements, and a further submission on 'common safety methods' was due to be made in early December. 'It is quite clear we are on our way', Lundstrom concludes.