Unnerved by Ufton Nervet

Saturday evening, about 8pm, waiting for a train. Something millions of other commuters like myself do every day.

Well, I like to call myself a commuter, I take the train to work. It’s a twenty minute 40 mile-an-hour crawl from Falmouth through the relative obscurity of the Cornish countryside to Truro, but I still like to call it a commute. It likens me to businessmen with briefcases crawling all over the plazas of Charing Cross and Waterloo every Monday morning. Even when I’m wearing a radioactive orange fleece.

Thing is about this occasion, I have heard about the accident at Ufton Nervet. Suddenly, the automated voice reading out “please familiarise yourself with the safety information provided on posters...” doesn’t seem so mundane. The laid back attitude regular travellers have on this tiny branchline has been replaced with a sense of unease. There’s about thirty of us on this last run tonight, and all seem to know. The ones who lie back, feet on seats in front of them listenening contently to their iPods, are now looking out the window at the pinpricks of orange studded against the pitch black of the November night.

As usual no-one gets out at Perranwell, about two at Penryn and then ten or so at Penmere, the privately-owned halt. Every fast burst and every braking moment is causing the pulse to quicken just slightly.

Of course it’s all just a knee-jerk reaction. The chances of anything untoward happening to this train are close to minute. The line is only open to one train at a time, and the speed limit is low.

Of course, the people taking the 17:35 from Paddington on Saturday had no such assurances. This wasn’t a private branch line. Other trains were ahead, and behind, the First Great Western service to Plymouth. Complicated spaghetti-bolognese arrangements of points and red signals had to be negociated. But then, the millions of pounds spent by Railtrack / Network Rail / Association of Train Operating Companies (delete as appropriate) were meant to eliminate all chances of accidents being caused by the circumstances which killed passengers at Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, Potters Bar, Clapham, Severn Tunnel...

But there’s a new danger. Cars are beginning to find their way onto rail tracks. Selby was a one-off - a stupid, irresponsible driver who didn’t sleep and ended up driving over a bridge. So why did a group of foreign workers die when their van was hit by a train only last year? And why was a suicidal man able to take his, and six other, lives this weekend?

Because it’s far too easy to just park your car on a train track at an unmanned level crossing. Who’s to stop you? I bet you any money there’s unmanned level crossings on freight lines carrying dangerous chemicals and materials. Plays right into the terrorists’ hands doesn’t it? Whoever thought of mixing road and rail was obviously inspired – in principle they work – but failed to realise the full implications.

Two things stood out from Saturday night. How come in such a quiet, uninhabited, expansive area as Ufton Nervet could a tunnel or a bridge not be built under or over the train line? And also, why was a train travelling at 120mph over a level crossing? The mere fact there’s a possiblity that something could block the track is enough incentive for there to be a slower speed limit around level crossings.

Perhaps that’s why we were nervous on Saturday on the Falmouth branch. Not because we expected an accident, but because we were worried about yet another implication of the Tories’ self-interested, misguided, plain stupid policy of de-enfranchising and privatising a tight-knit, interdependent, necessary public transport system. Having maintenence, station and line management, train punctuality and engineering all under one umbrella WORKED – splitting it up DOESN’T.

Yes it encourages competition and yes it’s good for the economy, but a disillusioned student desperate to make it home for Christmas sat for three hours in the damp of Exeter St. Davids waiting for his new Virgin Voyager to turn up doesn’t really give a monkeys about how well the economy’s doing. He or she just cares that when the train leaves the station, it’s going to stay on the rails.

Seven lives have been lost because someone thought it was a good idea to kill themselves in a car on a trainline. Ultimately responsiblity lies with him. But they’ve also been lost because someone thought it was a good idea to have a road run over a trainline. They’ve been lost becuase someone thought it was a good idea to have trains going at 100mph over these level crossings. But they’ve also been lost because someone thought it was a good idea to put profit above safety, and, because money is power, it’s not going to change anytime soon. They’ll just promise to improve safety, then sit on their hands until we have the next semi-regular fatal accident on British railways.

No comments: