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Rail travel in Wales is so safe, the most dangerous part of a train journey is getting to the station.

Byline: By Rhodri Clark Western Mail

Tomorrow marks 20 years since the last time a rail passenger died in a train accident in Wales. Rhodri Clark considers whether rail's superior safety record suggests we should spend more money on our railways - or on our roads IT WAS still dark on the morning of October 19, 1987, when the early morning train from Swansea to Shrewsbury headed north from Llandeilo.

After hours of heavy rainfall, the River Towy had become a raging torrent which undermined the railway bridge at Glanrhyd.

The driver was unaware that the bridge deck had fallen and about 7.15am, the train crept onto the bridge at 10mph, the usual speed limit over the bridge.

The front of the first coach plunged into the river but the vehicle remained connected to the other coach. Staff and passengers helped each other clamber from the leading coach, using the luggage racks for support.

There was no panic. Simon Penny, a schoolboy, pointed out a frog pinned to one of the train windows by the strength of the current.

Suddenly disaster struck.

The river's force tore the first coach from the second. Six people had escaped but the four who remained in the first coach drowned, including Simon Penny and the train driver.

It was a grim day for British Rail, but lessons were learned and procedures for inspection of railway bridges tightened. Those and other safety procedures continued after BR was replaced by private companies.

The result of that careful management of safety is that in the 20 years since the Glanrhyd accident, no rail passenger has been killed in a train accident in Wales.

There have been accidents, but no passenger fatalities.

In that same period 4,000 people died on Welsh roads.

The difference in safety records is so great that the most dangerous part of any rail journey is getting to or from the station.

The comparison isn't quite so simple, however.

Many more people and goods use the roads than the railways of Wales. There have been deaths on Welsh railways since the Glanrhyd accident, even if passengers in trains were not killed. Several accidents occurred on rural level crossings, but again no train passengers died.

"A lot of the deaths on the railways are in relatively small personal accidents - trespassers or people falling off platforms because they're drunk," says Prof Andrew Evans, professor of transport risk management at Imperial College, London.

One such accident happened last year at Cardiff Central, when someone fell down the station steps, he says.

"These deaths tend to get ignored on the grounds that it's their fault. The same is true of a lot of road deaths. A lot of the people killed on the roads do stupid things."

However, there is one important difference between rail and road travel. If you behave sensibly on the railway, you will be conveyed safely to your destination. Behave equally carefully on the roads and there's still a real chance that you will be injured or killed - because of the actions of other people.

Roads are such a free-for-all there is no practical way to prevent lapses in concentration, nodding off at the wheel, dangerous overtaking and countless other causes of accidents. Drink-driving remains a problem despite decades of campaigns against it.

Serious injuries and deaths in Welsh road accidents have declined over the past 20 years, but not as quickly as the decline in the number of journeys made on foot.

One approach to help reduce accidents is to get the rail network to shoulder more of the burden of moving people and freight.

While some parts of the network, such as the Valley Lines, are bursting at the seams and receiving investment to try to keep up with the increase in passenger numbers, most of the network is under-used.

The North Wales main line has only two or three freight trains a week, while thousands of lorries dash along the parallel A55 to the Irish ferries at Holyhead.

One A55 police check revealed that 35% of lorry drivers were exceeding their legal driving hours.

In separate incidents a lorry careered 300m along the A55's crash barrier before its driver woke up. Another begged police officers to stop him, as he could have been sacked for stopping of his own volition for a rest. A Dutch lorry driver was caught steering with his knees while he ate pasta from a saucepan.

While our rural roads have the worst safety record, our rural railways are idle for most of the day. The Fishguard line has two passenger trains every 24 hours. The Conwy Valley line, linking the tourism hotspots of Llandudno and Betws-y-Coed, has a train every three hours and none on Sundays from mid-September to late May. Passengers on the Aberystwyth-to-Shrewsbury line were promised an hourly service six years ago, but although the basic infrastructure could handle more trains, investment is needed in extra passing loops along the single-track line.

Swansea-based transport consultant John Davies, formerly British Rail's manager for Wales, believes some Irish transit freight could be forced onto trains through Wales because of an international shortage of lorry drivers.

"The safety card is one of many reasons to invest in rail. The main one is what it will do for people's mobility and the economy," says Mr Davies.

"The challenge in rural Wales is getting these huge rural areas a bit more connected to the rest of the country. Investment in rural railways will certainly help that, but also transport needs to be integrated. That means co-ordinating the railways and the express buses, and provision of better car parking. Station car parks are under tremendous pressure, in rural and urban areas."

Prof Evans says money intended to improve transport safety would best be directed at roads.

"If you switch people from road to rail, you do reduce the overall risk but not all that much."

Maintenance is one area where spending on roads would improve safety. Welsh railways have a strong safety record because the infrastructure is kept in fine fettle, thanks to Network Rail's borrowing and the payments it receives from train operators. Welsh roads, other than trunk routes like the M4 and A470, are subject to the budgetary pressures of local government, where road safety is arguably a low priority. Resurfacing and rebuilding highways has been off the pace for so long that there is now a pounds 1bn backlog of repairs in Wales. That equates to a lot of potholes waiting to topple bikes and many miles of worn asphalt ready to thwart the brakes of cars and lorries.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 18, 2007
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