LAST MONTH we reported on the staggering rise in infrastructure costs since Britain’s railways were fragmented and privatised in the 1990s (RG 9.03 p553). This owes much to relentless political, regulatory and even judicial pressure to spend unlimited sums and accept huge disruption of services in the name of safety, putting the future development of the UK network seriously at risk.
We believe this message is at last getting through to the highest levels of government. On August 22, the recently-appointed Minister for Transport Kim Howells was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, and he made it quite clear that the era of demanding rail safety at any price was over. ’We’ve got a situation where [rail] is probably the most safe form of travel that there is anywhere, and yet we look at every single incident as if it’s the end of civilisation’, he protested.
Warming to his theme, Howells asked ’are we to be paralysed from now on in terms of the way in which we conduct the railway’s business in this country? Or are we to be sensible about it and say: look, sure, there will be accidents. What we’ve got to do is make them absolutely minimal, and get on with the task of getting millions and millions people around this country day after day.’
’So you’re saying, quite clearly, we should re-assess our attitude to rail safety?’, the minister was asked. ’It’s a very safe form of travel, and yet we regard it as if it’s some kind of terrible monster that’s waiting to chew us all up’, Howells replied. ’We mustn’t paralyse ourselves and our whole rail network by being terrified of even admitting that occasionally an accident will occur, because of course it will - that’s the way life happens.’
Howells came to Transport with a reputation for speaking his mind, so was he talking out of turn? Not so. When the same interviewer put that question to his boss, Secretary of State for Transport Alistair Darling, on September 16 he insisted that ’what Kim Howells said was absolutely right, and I think most people thought he was being extremely realistic about it.’ Darling believed that ’we’ve got to get these things into perspective, and you know, the only absolutely safe train is one that sits at the platform.’