High-speed trains: have we learnt enough?

12 November 2012
High-speed train crash, China

On the train home recently my neighbour described how, while travelling to school, she had witnessed England’s biggest rail disaster: an experience that still affects her. How does the industry go about learning from such disasters asks Ralph Adam?

On 8 October 1952 she was waiting on platform 7 of Harrow & Wealdstone station when three trains collided: a packed, late-running Tring to Euston suburban service had switched tracks to keep the line clear for empty stock movements. As the train was about to depart, it was struck from behind at 50 to 60mph by a night express from Scotland which had passed both a colour-light signal at caution and two semaphore signals at danger. A second or two later, a double-headed, 15-carriage London to Liverpool/Manchester express passed through the station on the adjacent fast line, struck the sleeper’s wrecked locomotive and derailed. In all, 112 people lost their lives, with 340 injured – the toll would have been even higher, but for the swift action of Dr Curry, a local GP, and passing detachments of the United States Air Force who rushed to the scene and applied life-saving wartime field techniques.

A combination of patchy fog, misread signals and inadequate equipment had led to the disaster. The official report praised the steel coaching stock, which survived better than older wood-and-steel carriages; it stressed the need for an ‘automatic train control’ system to warn of adverse signals and automatically apply the brakes until cancelled by the driver. Some thought lives would be saved by installing more track circuits and colour light signals. Harrow’s track layout was criticised: the junction was to the north of the station to keep the length of rods between the points and the signal-box to a minimum. As a result, the suburban train had to wait on the fast line.

Since Trevithick’s original locomotive it has taken European rail engineers 200 years to achieve their present level of knowledge. The Harrow disaster formed part of this progression: it demonstrated the urgent need for automatic warning systems. Currently, the fashion is for high-speed rail (HSR), but are some countries launching their services too fast?

Take China, with the biggest, and fastest-growing, HSR network. After 50 years’ of worldwide high-speed train operation, 2011 saw the first-ever fatal accident: a Chinese bullet-train passed a green signal at Wen-chow (Wenzhou), before running into a stationary 16-coach electric multiple unit - pushing four carriages over a viaduct, killing at least 43 passengers and injuring over 200. How, with modern technology, can such an accident occur?

At Harrow the lines were cleared quickly and a report produced. In Wen-chow, wrecked carriages were buried and investigation findings hidden. After much pressure, the government admitted to ‘serious design flaws’, a ‘neglect of safety management’ (including corner-cutting), procurement faults and insufficient testing. The minister was sacked, massive corruption was revealed (including links to the Bo Xilai/Neil Heywood scandal) and criminal proceedings instigated. Work on other lines was suspended.

The rail industry has built its enviable safety record through detailed accident investigation and analysis, plus a willingness to learn and innovate. That requires a policy of openness; and less of a rush to modernise if fatalities and destroyed lives are to be avoided.

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