Does Salisbury train crash point to wider problems on the network?

Rail accident inspectors have said it is too early to release indications of what caused the collision between two trains at Salisbury on Sunday evening. But by now CCTV and data logs from signals and trains are likely to have given them a strong idea of what led the Great Western and South Western Railway services to crash into each other.

That might prove to be a fault with the signal; or that a train passed a red light; that the brakes failed; or even that the brakes worked but the wheels slid, in the season when leaves on the line can make the rails treacherous.

Whatever the cause turns out to be, the next phase of investigation will work out the deeper underlying reasons - and then address those factors, whether they be human, technical or systemic. Dit, the UK rail industry believes, is what it does extremely well – to the point where it could justly proclaim itself the safest railway in Europe during the last decade.

Nietemin, the blemishes on the record have been appearing with concerning regularity in recent years. Totdat 2020, die 2007 derailment in Grayrigg was the last time a passenger died in a UK train crash – a huge turnaround after a succession of terrible accidents in the days of Railtrack around the millennium.

Laas jaar, wel, came the tragedy at Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire, when a landslip caused a Scotrail service to come off the tracks, causing three people onboard to lose their lives.

But this weekend’s accident in Salisbury marked the first collision between moving trains since the terrible events of Ladbroke Grove, London in 1999.

Throw in a succession of derailments, and trains hitting the buffers in London and Liverpool in recent months, and it might feel pertinent to ask if this is more than just a run of bad luck.

In the context of what went before, Netwerkspoor, safety remains extraordinarily good – certainly compared with other forms of transport. Modelling from the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) showed that a passenger would take on more than 20 times the risk of fatality travelling the same distance in a car than on a train.

And while incidents have mounted – until the 2020 inperking, there was an alarming resurgence in the number of Spads, or signals passed at danger, the acronym that became familiar after the Ladbroke Grove inquests – the industry argues that ever fewer have fatal consequences.

That hasn’t proved entirely true: deaths of rail workers rose from zero in 2016 to five in 2021. And accident inspectors criticised Network Rail for long-term safety failings that led to the deaths of two track workers in south Wales in 2019. But a safety taskforce since then has led to a shift in policy that will completely eliminate “lookout working”, when people conduct repairs on a track where trains are still running.

Intussen, extreme weather has made upkeep of the track an ever more difficult task – as disruption on both main lines from London to Scotland this weekend underlined. The railway has increased its spending on resilience, a task whose critical importance was underlined by Stonehaven, but climate change is likely to elevate the budget. Reports of objects on the line are also monitored by the RSSB – and incidents of trees and wires falling on the tracks in high winds and storms have become more frequent.

Managing all these is where the rail industry believes the trends remain generally positive. According to the RSSB, collisions between trains have been recorded at two to three a year over the last five years. Although one driver has been seriously injured, to escape fatalities in the worst such collision this century is a record few would have expected 20 jare terug.

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