Hackney Cyclist has recently put up a series of blogs on his experience of cycling between Dutch cities. They’re well worth reading in detail, and they’ve inspired me to do the same for a ride I made last summer between the cities of Zwolle and Assen, in the north of the Netherlands.
This is a distance of around 45 miles, or 70 kilometres. I did it on my omafiets, shown below during a ‘rest stop’ on this ride.
As you can see it has two full panniers carrying everything I needed for a week’s worth of cycling (this was part of a trip that included visits to Rotterdam, Utrecht, and a three days in Assen and Groningen on a David Hembrow study tour). I was wearing ordinary clothes; I’ve never felt the need for special equipment or special bikes when doing these kinds of distances in the Netherlands because the environment allows me to go at a smooth, relaxed and consistent pace, never really exerting myself. Indeed, part of the fun of these trips is covering large distances as a ‘wheeled pedestrian’, hopping on my heavy machine straight after breakfast without even really thinking about it, and heading off over the horizon.
l left the centre of Zwolle on one of its ubiquitous bi-directional cycleways. Zwolle itself is very much a mixed bag; some really high quality new stuff, mixed with some low-quality infrastructure – just paint, essentially – that is very dated and often left me feeling quite exposed.
Heading north, I turned off this path onto an access road, with no centre line, and cycle markings at the edges.These kinds of markings have recently hit the headlines, so to speak, having been employed on a main road in the north of England. That’s a very different context from this street, which only serves a handful of properties, and is very quiet.
My route then took me onto a temporary path, and the crossing of the main road that has been upgraded, as described here, and shown in the video below.
On the other side of the road the cycle path climbed gradually, reaching a high bridge that took me over a large canal. There was a fast, busy road alongside me here, but cycling was comfortably separated from it.
In the distance in the photograph above is the impressive cycling suspension bridge shown in this Good Facility of the Week. You can cross a large junction on this bridge to enter the suburb of Westenholte, or you can veer around underneath the bridge to head north out of the city, as I did. Note the two very different types of cycling!
The path continued on seamlessly, bypassing a roundabout without me having to go anywhere near it…
… before leading me onto another access road, this time in a new development.
Again, just as with the example before, these markings are only appropriate on these kinds of quiet streets. Motor traffic (as can be seen) stays out of the lanes, because there is rarely oncoming motor traffic. This particular street only serves the dwellings on the left here; it is closed at the far end with a bollard (which retracts, only to allow buses to pass).
From here I left the city completely, moving onto a beautiful access-only road running beside a branch of the Ijssel river.
Motor traffic can use this road, but again, only around a handful of houses along here (a white one can be seen in the background) and I didn’t encounter any drivers along it. At this point, in fact, I still haven’t had any encounters with motor traffic, at all, nor have I even had to stop. My journey out of the city has been blissfully smooth and painless.
Checking my directions carefully on my phone, I eventually find the correct country lane I need to take to head towards the town of Hasselt. Even this quiet little lane has had a smooth concrete cycleway added alongside it, within the last few years. This concrete is actually smoother than the tarmac of the road.
This lane took me to the busy N331 road (‘N’ is the Dutch equivalent of a UK ‘A’ road), which was carrying plenty of fast, intimidating HGVs. Naturally enough, however, I had some parallel provision in the form of a service road, some distance from the main road itself.
In this agricultural part of the country these service roads are used by farm traffic, too slow for the fast main road – and obviously by any residents who live along the service road as well. This led to my very first shock of the day, an overtake from a large tractor pulling a vicious-looking piece of equipment, perhaps only a foot away from my left elbow. (The farmer had obviously momentarily forgotten about strict liability, which makes everyone play nice in the Netherlands).
Happily this service road ended as I arrived on the outskirts of the town of Hasselt, and I was back on a cycleway, which followed the N331 as it bypassed the town.
I was treated to a lovely, almost stereotypically ‘Dutch’ view of Hasselt as I crossed the river, and here I made my first (entirely voluntary) stop of the day. I’d made great progress – not with any great speed while cycling, but without ever having to have stopped moving.
Leaving Hasselt I was back on a service road again, parallel to the main road, and this one was definitely uncomfortable by Dutch standards, with what seemed like a large number of vehicles turning in and out of it at a busy junction which I had to cross, feeling quite exposed. Just like the overtake from the tractor driver, this was another bump back to earth, and it felt distinctly ‘British’. Note how the drivers are driving on the cycle markings – a clue that they aren’t appropriate.
From here, though, I was rewarded with perhaps the best cycling of the day, winding my way towards the next town of Meppel along a combination of tiny, tiny little tracks through the countryside, and broader farm roads, again only used by farmers to get to and from their properties, and not used by people cutting through, avoiding main roads.
These little tracks were surfaced with beautifully smooth concrete – this might be the ‘countryside’, but the surface was wonderful to cycle on.
It’s important to note that paths like these are merely ‘recreational’ routes, and are definitely not part of any formal or official utility cycle network. That’s why they are often not particularly wide, because they aren’t being used heavily – only by people like me taking the scenic route, or people cycling around for leisure. (The width isn’t a problem because you are unlikely to encounter someone coming the other way). In essence they are a nice ‘extra’ on top of the dense grid of utility routes.
Indeed, as I got closer to Meppel I joined one of these ‘proper’ routes, a much wider concrete path, with lighting – even though I was still in the countryside,
… cycling past herons…
… distinctive cattle…
… all on gloriously smooth paths, even the farm roads themselves, composed of wide concrete that I just rolled along on.
These little lanes had no motor traffic at all on them, but I still managed to suffer a close pass from a lady in a battered old Ford Fiesta, who then immediately turned left, right in the midst of her attempted overtake, into the farm where she evidently lived. Again, that hallowed ‘strict liability’ effect was evidently only intermittently effective…
On the outskirts of Meppel these tracks and paths joined a tarmac road, busy with leisure cyclists of two distinct types – elderly couples, and people whizzing past them in lycra, both groups enjoying the morning sunshine.
I’d reached Meppel – about 30km from Zwolle – having only had four or five direct encounters with motor vehicles (unfortunately, most of them quite bad!), and with only having had to stop a handful of times, whisked along on a combination of genuinely impressive cycle engineering on a grand scale, right down to modest, tiny paths in the middle of nowhere.
Part 2 – in which I cycle from Meppel on to Assen, with a diversion along the way – to come!
Last week I wrote about Transport Tribalism, the curious habit of parcelling people up according to the mode of transport they are using – even defining them by that mode of transport. It was prompted by articles from Linda Grant and from David Aaronovitch, the latter a plea that polarised viewpoints should be avoided. I attempted to argue that Grant’s article itself was itself an example of just that kind of polarising, simplistic, black-and-white moralising that Aaronovitch was objecting to, in that it presented ‘cyclists’ as a unique kind of human being, without ever appearing to realise that human beings are multi-modal, and that they carry their characteristics with them as they switch their mode of transport. An ‘angry cyclist’ is really just an angry human being, who might have an ‘angry busist’ the day before – except of course we don’t ever describe people who get the bus in this way, because it’s faintly absurd.
At the end of the post, I said I would explain why this way of looking at the world is problematic, and why so many ‘cyclists’ (really, people who happen to feel strongly about using a bike for certain kinds of trips) objected to Grant’s article.
Mainly, it’s because it has consequences. Aaronovitch was fairly dismissive of any potential negative outcomes from Grant’s piece. He wrote
Some accused her of inciting attacks on cyclists as though maddened drivers would mow down anything in lycra while shouting “THIS IS FOR LINDA!!!” One man compared what she had done to the hate-articles which accompanied gay-bashing in his native Ireland back in the old days.
Now I can’t imagine any driver choosing to attack someone on a bike specifically because of an article in the Guardian – one by Linda Grant, or otherwise. Nor can I imagine some kind of strange vengeance attack, getting retribution ‘FOR LINDA’. But that wasn’t really the objection. It’s not that an article like this would lead to any specific incident. Rather that it, and the countless others like it, contribute to an already fairly poisonous background climate surrounding cycling, that reinforces prejudice.
We live in a world where people are apparently willing to use their cars to bully people on bicycles, even using their cars as a weapon to attack them, and undoubtedly many will do so because of their general attitude to ‘cyclists’ – an attitude that will be framed and shaped by the things people read, and see.
A recent trial provides a case in point. Last week a delivery driver was found guilty of careless driving, following an incident in which he knocked a woman off her bike at the Bank Junction in the City of London. The evidence presented – which included onboard video camera in the van) – is strongly suggestive that this was quite deliberate, even if the driver himself was only found guilty of careless driving.
The onboard CCTV camera in Baker’s van captured the delivery driver saying ‘Oh God’ as she moved in front of his vehicle. As she moved off and signalled to turn right, Baker was heard to say: ‘Come on get out of the bloody way’ and beeped his horn.
Mrs Kempster told jurors: ‘I got a beep which I regarded as an angry beep which I was rather annoyed about because it was a hugely busy day and I knew I was cycling impeccably. I am afraid I made an unsuitable gesture and stuck two fingers up. I continued and heard a roar of the van coming up my side. Then he slowed to my speed and came closer and closer getting towards the edge of his lane, then he must have been in my lane.’
… Baker carried on driving until a motorcyclist caught up with him and tapped on his window to tell him he had knocked a cyclist off her bike. The delivery driver allegedly replied: ‘Really, did I? Did she not run into me?’
In the context of discussion about attitudes towards people riding bikes, this particular passage is instructive –
In interview Baker admitted cursing at the cyclist and spoke ‘disparagingly’ about cyclists in general, the court heard. He also admitted hearing a bang but claimed he thought he had driven over a manhole and didn’t realise he had knocked the cyclist off. Prosecutor Martin Hooper said Baker was ‘rather irritated by this cyclist in particular but also cyclists generally.
How much did Baker’s general dislike of ‘cyclists’ (note, any person moving around London who happens to be on a bike at the time Baker encounters them) contribute to this incident? It’s obviously impossible to say, but it’s more than plausible that a person harbouring an intense dislike of users of a particular mode of transport is more likely to be involved in this kind of incident than someone who is more equanimous.
What is certain is that people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle will yell at you, or abuse you, or bully you with their vehicle, simply because you happen to be on a bike. I know this, because it has happened to me. I have been going about my business quite blamelessly, when someone decides to punish me with their vehicle – and when I ask them why, the justification is almost always along the lines of the general behaviour of ‘cyclists’, not anything that I myself had done. Whether it’s ‘you all go through red lights’, or ‘you mow down grannies on the pavement’, their behaviour towards me is rationalised by the bad behaviour of complete strangers, who simply happened to be using the same mode of transport as me. To these particular drivers, I am an embodiment of ‘cyclists’ and all their ills. It’s similar to the kind of ‘outgroup’ thinking that leads to abuse and attacks on innocent, but visible, members of a particular minority group following an atrocity committed by a member of that minority group – even if the outgroup identity of ‘cyclist’ can be shed at a moment’s notice simply by stepping off the bike.
To be clear, Grant’s piece – despite the fact it contained well-worn tropes like ‘lycra-clad cult’ – wasn’t particularly bad, as least as far these kinds of articles go. I’ve seen much worse. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, it all adds up to a kind of toxic soup, one that serves to reinforce hostile attitudes, and even to inflame them.
My personal view is that hostility towards people cycling, of the kind that Dennis Baker displayed, is almost entirely a symptom of a crap road environment that fails to take account of cycling as a mode of transport. It’s an environment that pushes cycling and motoring into the same space, two modes of transport with disparate requirements that are not suited to being treated in the same way. It’s an environment that pushes cycling onto the pavement when things get a bit too tricky, lumping it in with pedestrians in a way that again creates needless conflict. It’s an environment that inevitably restricts cycling to a small minority of the population, fertile grounds for outgroup thinking – phrasing like ‘them’, ‘they’, as opposed to ‘us’ and ‘we’. To me it’s not the least bit surprising that people walking and driving hate ‘cyclists’, because the needs of anyone choosing to use a bike are rarely catered for in a sensible way.
But newspaper articles that present ‘cyclists’ as some kind of uniquely awful species on our streets certainly do nothing to ameliorate that hostility, and just as problematically, they make attempts to improve our streets, so that they work for all users, even harder. Witness the way improvements in London are being presented as ‘for cyclists’, particularly by hostile parties on social media, but also by journalists on mainstream newspapers.
The battleground for the clash of commuters is Victoria Embankment, where the two-wheeled Utopia of a Cycle Superhighway is being built, and it is causing all manner of discord.
On one side are the high achievers reliant on Porsches and petrol to glide between engagements. Pitted against them are their cycling evangelist colleagues, Lycra-clad executives who splurge their bonuses on 1,000-pound Brompton bikes or fixie racers, pedalling their stress away by turning the city’s roads into race tracks.
Of course, current users of the Embankment are probably disproportionately composed of males, on faster bikes, principally because this was a very hostile road to cycle on. But the Superhighway isn’t really ‘for’ these users. It’s for everyone, for anyone who might want to ride a bike, whether they are a City type on an expensive carbon racing bike, or families with children.
— Christopher Day (@IndieChris71) December 30, 2015
The potential users of cycling infrastructure like the ones shown in the photograph above disappear from view when the debate is narrowly focused on current users of bicycles in London, and their apparently unique mode-specific ills. Debate framed in this way not only contributes to a more hostile environment for existing users, but also makes the struggle to open up our streets to anyone who wants to ride a bike even harder. That’s why it’s problematic.
A new bridge over the Thames in East London would only benefit ‘former Tory MPs’, a Newham councillor has claimed.
Councillor Airdrie Dalden is objecting to plans from Transport for London which include a bridge between the borough and the Royal Borough of Greenwich on the south of the river.
Quoting the example of journalist Matthew Parris, councillor Dalden said: “The vast majority of people currently crossing the Thames here are former Tory MPs in swimming trunks. Women of any ethnic group who wish to wear modest clothing, and I count myself in that category, are not going to put on a swimming costume and cross the Thames. Swimming is a discriminatory form of transport.”
Parris was criticised by the Port of London Authority in 2010 after writing about his experience of being swept a mile upriver when swimming across the busy commercial waterway at night.
Mayor Boris Johnson claims that the new Thames Gateway Bridge across the river would link the transport poor Thamesmead estate and Woolwich development area in Greenwich with residential and redevelopment areas around Beckton and the Royal Docks in Newham, creating opportunities for one of Britain’s most deprived boroughs.
But Councillor Dalden told AWWTM that the money Johnson proposes spending on the bridge would not “benefit every aspect of Newham, which is an ethnically diverse borough.”
“You look around and of the people who are crossing the Thames here, they do not belong to wider ethnic groups. The majority of swimmers are former Tory MPs like Matthew Parris and Boris Johnson. Fact.”
Transport for London are now considering a compromise solution which will involve building half a bridge.
So TfL have produced a short advert once again asking everybody to calm down, play nice, and share the road. I figured it might make a good excuse to post again this thing that I scribbled a couple of years ago.
On the Guardian Bike Blog, Tom Richards points out that “while we’d all love better cycling infrastructure, there is neither the money nor the political will…” Therefore we should focus on easier and more populist things — like conquering human nature and legislating to re-educate 30 million people.
Now, leaving aside the fact that the effects of changing driver education (if there are ever any effects at all, and it’s not a very robustly researched field) have long lag times — as long as street lifecycles. And leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that this sort of intervention would ever actually have any significant effect on the sort of issues we’re concerned about, such as occurrence and severity of motor vehicle/cycle crashes (but if Richards were to propose a randomised controlled trial…). And leaving aside the fact that it could have, at best, only a small effect on the arguably more important issue of barriers to cycling, which are more about subjective assessment of the comfort of the environment than about raw injury statistics, and so can make no significant contribution to solving the wider issues which cycling is tied to. Basically, leaving aside the fact that this is, at best, a mediocre proposal. The interesting question is, why do people keep clinging to these kinds of ideas?
The idea that somehow physical engineering is difficult and expensive and unpopular, while changing human behaviour is quick, easy, cheap and effective, is one that the British are remarkably strongly attached to. It is manifested in a wide variety of rarely very effective campaigns and initiatives, from marketing the unmarketable to the bizarrely widespread belief that obscure details of insurance law are a significant influence on behaviour. One of my favourite examples of the attitude was caught by Freewheeler a couple of years ago, from “3 feet please” campaigner and now ex LCC trustee David Love:
This provoked a response from David Love in the Comments, who among things writes:
Sure, segregation would be great but in London at least there’s no room and no money so it’s not going to happen.
Campaigning for behaviour change is more realistic right now
And there you have the ‘realism’ of a man who is LCC Trustee and Vice Chair.
But the British tradition of soft measures goes far wider, deeper and further back than this. Motorists may moan about having been the victim of a “war” that restricts their freedom, polices their movements, or sends campaigns of severe punishment for accidental and unavoidable infringement of petty rules, but the reality is that right from the start, when the red flag acts were repealed, this country’s response (and that of much of the English-speaking world) to the problems that motorists create on the road has largely been light touch and libertarian, in which the children are simply asked again and again to play nice, even as they become ever greater bullies, and only if they’re really bad might they have their pocket money docked. We encourage and raise awareness, appeal to the legendary British sense of fair play, and still believe that the ideal road is within reach if only we can persuade everybody to get along through courtesy, good manners, and communicating our intentions clearly to one another.
Joe Moran has an entertaining history of this English approach to road safety in the chapter “please don’t be rude on the road” in On Roads. Amongst others he tells the story of Mervyn O’Gorman, who argued against introducing a driving test because all that a motorist should require is a natural “road sense”, and who acted on his belief that the cause of road accidents is poor communication by inventing the Highway Code, a list of mostly legally baseless customs and courtesies, explaining that “is is just as ungentlemanly to be discourteous or to play the fool on the king’s highway as it would be for a man to push his wife off her chair at the Sunday tea table and grab two pieces of cake.” Perhaps most entertaining is his coverage of the period in the 1930s when “courtesy cops” went around with megaphones politely asking errant drivers to behave themselves. He concludes:
Underneath this appeal lay an uncomfortable truth: many members of the respectable middle classes were incompetent drivers who were to blame for fatal road accidents. Rather than turning them into criminals through putative legislation, British traffic law relied on appeals to their sense of fair play. It was always better, went the mantra of the time, to cultivate good habits than propose bad bills. [Sound familiar?] So the courtesy cops did not prosecute motorists; they offered friendly advice to the careless. The Times blamed accidents on what it called ‘motorious carbarians’ — the few bad apples hidden among the vast majority of gentlemanly drivers, who could be relied upon to break the law sensibly. Motoring correspondents railed against excessive regulation in the 1930s in a way that eerily echoes today’s campaigns against speed cameras and road humps. ‘Regulation after regulation pours from the Ministry of Transport in a never-ending flood,’ complained the Daily Mirror in 1934 … but ‘courtesy and good manners may be cultivated easily enough by everyone.’
They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For eighty years or more the answer to motorists playing nice has been just a little bit more education and awareness raising, and look where it has got us. It’s time to call off the search for the British sense of fair play and abandon the naive idea that meaningful and worthwhile change on the road can be achieved with a few gentle nudges.
7 years, 4 months and 18 days ago, a train crashed in Cumbria. So it seemed like an appropriate moment to post this extract from another project that I’ve been working on. It’s all a draft so your comments and corrections on matters of style and fact are very much welcome.
Just before 8am on the 5th of October 1999, a commuter train left London Paddington bound for Bedwyn in Wiltshire. A few minutes later, just as it was getting into its stride through the inner suburbs, it approached the location where the bidirectional terminus station tracks cross over one another and organise themselves into strictly segregated “up” and “down” direction main lines in a great tangle of points. The train passed straight through a yellow warning signal without slowing, and soon after skipped the red stop signal that was all there was to protect those Ladbroke Grove crossovers ahead.
The morning InterCity from Cheltenham hit the commuter train head on at a closing speed of 130mph. The front car of the commuter train was crushed by the heavy express locomotive, which in turn shed its diesel across the tracks while its rake of coaches, full of momentum and still propelled by a second locomotive at the rear, jackknifed into the flaming wreckage. Thirty one people were killed on that occasion; more than 500 were injured.
The driver of the Bedwyn commuter train was obviously unavailable to explain why he failed to respond to the two signals warning him of the danger ahead. The front carriage of his train was completely destroyed in the impact; neither driver was available to defend against media speculation and blame. An Inquiry was ordered, and Lord Cullen was appointed to get to the bottom of the matter and find out what went wrong.
Cullen was unusually thorough in his investigations into what went wrong at Ladbroke Grove, eventually publishing not one but two reports. The first, as you would expect, looked at the immediate cause of the crash. It reconstructed the story of how the driver of the commuter train jumped the lights, but found that far from being one man’s mistake, a catalogue of errors had added up to the catastrophe. The driver had only graduated from his training two weeks before the crash, and the inquiry uncovered multiple problems with the train company’s training programme, including inadequate instruction in signal procedures. The train was equipped with an Automatic Warning System, with audible in-cab alarms to warn the driver when the train passes signals — but the system was too simple to differentiate between yellow warning signals and red stop signals, and each time the Bedwyn train passed a signal, the driver had pressed the acknowledgement button to prevent the system from automatically stopping the train, as was the correct practice for yellow signals. The signals themselves had been erected in confusing arrays on gantries over the tracks, with views restricted by nearby bridges and by the line’s newly installed overhead power supply. And the position and design of the signal lights meant that at 8am on a bright October morning, westbound train drivers would see the reflection of the sun “lighting up all the signals like Christmas trees”, as one driver told the inquiry, making it far from obvious that a signal was set to red rather than yellow. The inquiry concluded that a momentary lapse of concentration caused the driver to respond incorrectly to the first signal, while the poor visibility and reflections led him to incorrectly read the second.
The inquiry revealed that the crash on the fifth of October was just the visible tip of an iceberg. The failures that led to the Bedwyn train jumping the lights had led eight others to do exactly the same at that one signal in the previous six years, with a 67 red signals in total passed on the tracks out of Paddington during that time. So-called “signal passed at danger” events — SPADs — were endemic, and railway management had never taken the problem seriously enough. It was only by chance and good fortune on those previous occasions that there was no oncoming express train. In fact, it was later calculated that, at the rate that signal jumping was occurring at Ladbroke Grove, a catastrophic crash was absolutely inevitable in that location, and at an expected rate of one every 14 years.
In short, Ladbroke Grove revealed that there were widespread failings in the railway system that enabled mistakes to happen and to go uncorrected, and the risks resulting from these failings were accepted as an inevitable fact of life. Cullen realised that his inquiry into the one incident couldn’t ignore the much bigger problem on the railway. And he was proved right even before he could publish his conclusions. One year after the Ladbroke Grove crash, an InterCity bound for Leeds at 115mph derailed on poorly maintained track at Hatfield, killing 4 passengers and revealing the scale of the failings that would soon lead to the collapse of Railtrack, the privatised owners of the railway infrastructure.
Cullen knew that the failings on the railway were far too numerous to identify and fix in one report — he had identified a dozen serious problems in the Ladbroke Grove case alone — and besides, fixing problems would not guard against new ones creeping in. Instead, Cullen introduced the systems that would enable a continual process of identification and correction of problems, and a long-term plan for improvement. Key amongst these were the creation of the Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB) and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) to oversee an overhaul of the railway’s safety culture. RAIB, modelled on the older Air Accident and Marine Accident Investigation Branches, was created to ensure that an independent investigator got to the bottom of every incident on the railway, rooting out the failures at all levels of the industry. RAIB does for railway incidents today what Cullen did for Ladbroke Grove: the investigator makes extensive enquiries, consults the detailed operational records, and reconstructs events, leading to thick reports highlighting the lessons that are to be learned. Working practices get revised, enforcement of rules is tightened, and investment is made in new technology.
RAIB investigates incidents with the aim of preventing anything like them from ever happening again. But the one thing RAIB does not do is assign blame. It inherits from Cullen the recognition that in a complicated system like the railway, it takes more than one person to mess up. Malice and incompetence, laziness and greed, and momentary lapses of concentration are surely all characteristics that can be expected of people from time to time. But if those traits are ever allowed to lead to a catastrophe, it is the system that has failed at least as much as any individual.
As Cullen put it, describing the problem of the epidemic of jumped signals — SPADs — at Ladbroke Grove:
Underpinning my approach to these matters is the following. On the one hand the public quite rightly expects that there should be no SPADs which run the risk of causing injury. On the other hand human nature is fallible: no matter the training and experience — and they are extremely important — it is impossible to exclude the possibility of such an event. … if and to the extent that the safe operation of a train is dependent on one person it is essential that the demands which the railway system makes on him or her take adequate account of human factors.
This is a central principle of the systems that Cullen put in place. Ladbroke Grove was not the fault of one driver for failing to stop at a signal: the life and limb of 500 passengers should never have been placed entirely in the hands of one fallible human, just a single momentary lapse of concentration between him and disaster. So in Cullen’s system, the railway industry now identifies situations where one easy mistake could have terrible consequences, and it eliminates them.
Frequently, this means re-configuring track to reduce the kind of the movements that could allow a crash to happen, and introducing new technology to automatically protect trains from the minor mistakes that human drivers and signallers inevitably make. Cullen’s report, for example, specifically advised that Britain roll out technology called Automatic Train Protection (ATP). This system, coupled with other advances in modern signalling technology, makes it pretty much impossible to accidentally crash a train: the positions of all the trains on the line are automatically detected by circuits in the rails and the system keeps them apart by lengths of several train braking distances, refusing to allow the person operating the signals to put trains on collision courses; and the trains are sent information about speed limits and signal states, preventing their drivers from speeding and, even if the driver fails to do so, stopping automatically at red lights. ATP had been investigated by British Rail before privatisation, but the government at the time was not prepared to pick up the billion pound bill for installing it across the network. Once the inevitable had happened at Ladbroke Grove, it was perhaps a source of shame to some that the technology which would have made the crash impossible had been rejected on these cost grounds.
Equally important to the success of mechanisms like RAIB in building a safe system is a recognition of the Heinrich Triangle. This, remember, is the pyramid of the many near misses, minor incidents and major injuries that sits below every fatality. RAIB investigates all of these things, not just the headline crashes and fatalities. Even if nothing serious ever came of the near misses and minor lapses, understanding and eliminating the could-have-been calamities is vital if actual catastrophes are to be avoided. In 2013, for example, RAIB investigated such incidents as a part on a poorly maintained engineering train working loose, causing minor damage to track; a team of maintenance workers coming within 2 seconds of being hit by a train, when processes in place should have ensured they always clear the tracks with at least 10 seconds to spare; another in which a farmer was given the go ahead to use a manually operated level crossing while a train — which she saw in plenty of time to stand clear — was approaching; and a signal passed at danger on a minor line that had yet to be equipped with a full train protection system. None of these incidents had any consequences for life or limb — but it was only luck that there were not worse outcomes. So, rather than dismiss them as inconsequential, RAIB investigated and made recommendations for revised working practices and improved technology. New maintenance regimes were implemented for the engineering trains; the planning process for work teams was tightened; and a software bug in the signalling system for the farm crossing was identified and quickly eliminated. By tackling the could-have-been tragedies at the bottom of the pyramid, RAIB have stopped the tragedies at the top before they ever happen.
Ladbroke Grove was just one of a series of catastrophic train crashes that occurred during the short tenure of Railtrack as the privatised owners of the railway infrastructure. Before that, British Rail presided over regular train crashes — diminishing slowly in number and severity over time, but a fact of life nevertheless, from the 112 killed at Harrow and Wealdstone in 1952 to the 35 killed in a similar three train pileup at Clapham Junction in 1988. The pre-nationalisation rail companies were worse still, from the death of William Huskisson in 1830 on the opening day of the original passenger railway, through the dark decades of the late 1800s when sometimes rail disasters could be expected monthly, to the railway’s worst year, 1915, when 265 were killed in four catastrophic crashes. And these are merely the numbers for train crashes, not including the poor neglected navvies who built and maintained the lines or the men operating the freight yards. In the early years, such lowly workers were expendable labour, while politicians agreed with the railway companies — in which many owned shares — that safety regulations would be too burdensome a barrier to bigger profits. The railway was a different world.
The last time anybody died on a train that crashed in Britain was on the evening of 23 February 2007 when a Virgin Trains express to Glasgow derailed on mistakenly unmaintained track at Grayrigg in Cumbria, the lead carriage performing an impressive backflip as the trailing carriages rolled down an embankment. Thanks to the sturdy design of the modern carriages, just one person died. The Grayrigg crash happened just 7 years, 4 months and 18 days after Ladbroke Grove. It’s impossible to say “never again”, and we must always guard against complacency, but as that incident fades ever further into history, it has started to feel like train crashes simply don’t happen any more. The world changed, and it only took 7 years.
For the blog it made sense that I let this little extract stand on its own as a story by itself, but really it’s meant to be understood as one piece within a larger story that I assembled early in the year, topped and tailed with an edited version of this story. In it I try to tie together a few disparate strands that I had been thinking about, using as a theme the imagined “different worlds” that Dave Horton talked about and the real different worlds that have come about, in surprisingly short time, in the Netherlands and on the railways. And in it, the 7 years, 4 months and 18 days of fatal train crash free days are contrasted with the 27 days during that period when we can expect there to have been zero fatal crashes on Britain’s roads. Hopefully it might one day be fit to see the light of day…