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February 26, 2007



After a long feature on day 2 of the Cumbria aftermath, the news programme switched to local news. 3 dead on the A36 - 20 seconds - on to the rest of the news.

Matthew Sinclair

I think it's less that rare events are over-represented in the popular imagination and more that events of a particular scale are over-represented. A train crash is a bigger event than most car crashes and, hence, passes the bar to make the news... it then gets over-represented.

Isn't there another, rather cynical, side to this in that the trains have an impact on the lives of those who are not injured by shutting down lines etc., which causes people to take notice whereas cars are usually cleared away and the roads running again pretty quickly.

Paul Scargill

I think it has more to do with the human psychology of control.

Car accidents maybe more common, but the perception is the driver(s) has/have more control. Being a rail passenger you have little percieved control over your impending collision.


Comparing road and rail crashes is a fruit bowel of apples and oranges. A better comparison would be between rail and air (or to a smaller degree coach travel).
People can see the distinction.

john b

I used to think the "large scale vs small scale" thing held - but I'm not sure that's valid. Secondary safety (ie what happens when they crash) is now so good in trains that the most serious rail crash in several years will cause fewer deaths than the most serious road crash in a given week, as Andrew highlights.

Not so sure about impact on travel plans, either. The total person-delay-hours impact from the closure of the M25 in rush-hour for an hour will be greater than if this bit of the WCML is closed for a month, and it's not exactly a major event when that happens.

Rarity and control are key, I'm fairly sure. The control thing is particularly silly: while it's true that you can substantially increase your chances of dying on the roads by driving badly, your chances of driving well but still being killed by the actions of some other idiot are far greater than your chances of being killed on the train.

One point for Chris though: if people *believe* [even irrationally] the railways are dangerous, they are more likely to travel by car, and hence ten times more likely to die in transport accidents. So rail safety spending might have a larger positive impact than the direct reduction in rail fatalities, by also encouraging people to shift mode from cars.

Marcin Tustin

It's never occurred to me before that lowering the safety standards on the railways would be a net gain in safety, if that lowered ticket costs, and shifted travel to the railways. Of course, the run up to that lowering of prices might be quite long.

john b

MT: it's a point I've made many a time in the past, but (as above) I'm increasingly doubtful that it's true. People refuse to switch from car to rail even though the latter is usually cheaper - generally the non-switchers lie that rail is expensive, dangerous and full of chavs. If rail were made cheaper by cutting safety, it would take out one spurious excuse but strengthen the other two.

Kit: I understand Gillian McKeith is keen on fruit bowels. But go on, why is it unfair to compare rail to road safety? Road is the key competitor for most rail journeys, far more so than air or coach.


I don't disagree, but there are two second-order effects worth mentioning. (1) About 250 people per year die on the railways, but not in "crashes". The deaths are classified under "trespass and suicide". Of course, they are not passengers. (2) There is a suspicion that the govt's figures for the declining number of deaths on the roads may be wrong; they come from police figures but the hospital figures don't show the same decline.


Lots of good stuff here. I was also thinking perhaps it's to do with perceptions of safety. I know cars crash a lot and people die. I'm also a bit unhappy about getting on planes. But I never really think once about the possibility of trains crashing - ie I think the chance is zero. It's quite a shock to find out it isn't.


The story I'd like to see more of is how the design and production engineers have produced a much safer train, so that an horrific accident like this can produce only one fatality. Anyone got any links?


John B:

Rail is only cheaper than car if you're considering total cost - if you compare the price of a rail ticket against your car purchase, insurance and so on.

That's probably a reasonable comparison when it comes to a family with one or two commuting parents deciding whether to buy a second car.

The choice that most people usually face, though, is "shall I take the train for this journey, or shall I drive my car." At that point, the relevant comparison is between the ticket price and the marginal cost to make that extra journey by car - fuel and extra wear/tear. For a single person, the train can still sometimes compete, but usually the car works out cheaper (plus, of course, your car leaves when you want it to, doesn't subject you to annoying noises from other occupants of the car (unless you have teenagers, but in that case, you're used to it), takes you where you want to go, rather than half an hour away from it, etc. etc.)

john b

Dipper: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6391743.stm

Sam: marginal cost is /usually/ lower by train for one-person journeys, and sometimes for multi-person journeys. People calculate marginal cost badly, generally failing to account for the impact of mileage on servicing costs and resale value; they also generally overestimate rail fares.


tks john b.

Marcin Tustin

Matthew: it's practically zero. Historically, certain stretches are more dangerous than others, so if you are on most stretches, then the danger is less even than the national average, which is very low.


[which cost money and so drive up fares ]

This connection would only apply in a straightforward manner if railways were a competitive industry making normal profits. Since they're in fact a network of local monopolies whose P&L is entirely dependent on their ability to lobby for subsidies, I don't think it follows at all. Fares are regulated.

john b

D2 -

You're right on a micro level, but not a macro level. Rail costs the government four times as much now as it did pre-privatisation, a sizeable proportion of which is due to increased safety spending.

This has created massive pressure on the DfT from the Treasury to cut this figure by any means possible - hence the recent franchise settlements incorporating very high payments from TOCs to the DfT, and corresponding large fare rises (not all fares are regulated, and it is possible to raise regulated fares subject to DfT approval, which is often forthcoming).


Comparing rail safety to road safety is very tricky. They operate in a completely network environment. Rail has enforced separation of units, roads don't. Train drivers don't really need to worry another train pulling out in front of etc.

This is not to say that the road system can't be improved or that the lack of media coverage of car deaths is ok, but once you get into the detail the systems are not really comparable.

As for cost of rail vs car, rail tends to fall down when the cost and journey time to/from train station approaches that of the train journey itself.

Mark Wadsworth

Brilliant, this site certainly has the most thought provoking posts and the most interesting replies. That's all.


I am not sure I find this at all surprising, or even newsworthy.

The risk of a train accident seems to me to be obviously lower than a car accident.

Train crashes, though, are catastrophic when they happen: they are very photogrenic - carriages skewed across tracks and down embankments.

I think the most newsworthy aspect of the Cumbrian accident (and this is not meant to be disrespectful to those who were injured, fatally or otherwise) is that there was only one fatality.

No transport system can be risk-free, and generally the injuries per mile of railway journeys seem pretty healthy.


John B:

I don't need to estimate rail fares - I just look them up.

(The last journey of any note I made in the UK was in a rental car. The total cost of the journey (rental plus petrol) was cheaper (for 2 people) by car than by train, by about 20% or so. To make the journey by train would have involved multiple changes of train, and would have required us to hump all our luggage about in one go. Plus, of course, the car could go door-to-door, run a few errands on the way, and was rather faster overall than the train.)

If it was cheaper for two of us to rent a car for that journey, it must have been a lot cheaper had we owned a car. Plus, of course, the car was very much more convenient.

Now, I will agree that we could have got a better deal had we purchased APEX rail tickets. Unfortunately, all the cheap advance purchase tickets seem to commit you to taking a particular train, and we needed more flexibility than that.


Sam, your particular experience doesn't invalidate anything that John B said, if you read what he actually said.


No, it's just an anecdote, but consider:

The cost to me of renting and fueling a car (which is very easy to measure) must exceed, on average, the costs that I would incur in fuel, extra servicing and depreciation on my own car, if I had had one (otherwise car rental companies wouldn't make any money).

John B claims that people are bad at doing price comparisons between train and car. Maybe they are - I thought it was interesting to point out that, when I actually made the comparison, in a way which by construction overestimates the cost of the journey in a private car, the car still won.

I think we're arguing about the wrong thing, though. Most people aren't price-sensitive to the exclusion of all other factors. In any case where the car and train work out to have a vaguely similar cost, people's other preferences usually drive their choice. This usually means weighing the stress involved in having to drive vs the ease of being able to work, read the paper or sleep on the train, and the convenience of being able to leave whenever you want and stop for a decent meal vs having to fit around train timetables and eating a British Rail BLT.

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I'd have to agree with the statistics. It is far more dangerous to travel by car than by a train. This is probably because you'd have to deal with a lot of other cars on the road which increases your risk of having an accident. While the train can only have a fatal accident if it derails or if it collides with another train which is pretty much unusual.

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