YET ANOTHER public inquiry, this time into automatic train protection (but still with m’learned friends present in strength), opened in London on September 18. Chaired jointly by Lord Cullen and Professor Uff, who respectively held inquiries into the Ladbroke Grove (1999) and Southall (1997) collisions, it provides the third opportunity within a year for the safety of Britain’s privatised railways to be dissected under the microscope. A fourth is in prospect when Lord Cullen alone hears evidence on the broader question of how to manage safety in an industry that has been privatised and fragmented - as is happening in numerous countries after 160 years of unified control.

Whatever framework is chosen, a key element of this reform process is an injection of managers with minimal understanding of why train brakes, for example, operate in a particular way. Yet at the same time, there is a powerful current of public opinion driving personal responsibility for accidents upwards from front line employees to professional engineers, managers and even directors.

It is primarily with such people in mind that Ian Macfarlane has written what is beyond question the most comprehensive analysis of rail safety fundamentals ever attempted. It taps a rich vein of personal experience that spanned the globe, and covered manufacture as well as operation. And unlike the tonnes of paper generated by formal safety procedures, it is eminently readable, not to say colourful. There can be few in the industry who would not benefit from the insights it contains.

The first volume, published by the Institution of Engineers Australia, covers braking. Having read in manuscript other sections of this remarkable account of how railways became safe - and how often that record has been compromised through ignorance - we can report that there is more, perhaps even better, to come.

Railway Safety: Brakes is available from EA Books for A$63·50, on-line at or by fax from +61 2 9438 5934. n