Nothing goes

Even before the Tube accident, UK transport policy was to stop people from travelling.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Science & Tech

I wish I were a conspiracy theorist. Then, in the wake of the accident on the London Underground on 25 January, when a Central Line train derailed at Chancery Lane, I could comfort myself with the following fantasies:

  • The accident was orchestrated by London Mayor Ken Livingstone, to highlight the problems of the UK government’s intentions to fund the Tube through a public-private partnership (PPP). The accident happened almost a year to the day from when he warned that a disaster worse than the Hatfield overground crash of 2000 would happen if PPP was allowed to go ahead;
  • The accident was orchestrated by Ken’s enemies, many of whom reside in government, as a way to scupper his London congestion charging schemes even further, thereby ruining his chances of re-election;
  • The accident was orchestrated by the firefighters in their ongoing pay dispute, a mere couple of days before they went on strike again, to make clear the importance of their work;
  • The accident was orchestrated by Tube drivers, no strangers to striking, to highlight the responsibilities that drivers have and the unfair treatment they receive.

Sadly, I suspect the truth of the matter is less conspiratorial fantasy than the grim reality of navigating life in the UK today. We live in a country where travelling from one place to another is seen as an optional extra, and we live in a capital city whose thriving population is seen, not as the thing that gives London its buzz, but as the thing that makes London a problem. When it comes to transport of any sort, the official orthodoxy seems to be that if we could only get rid of the people, and stop them from going places, all would be well.

The immediate reaction to the Chancery Lane derailment indicates how widely and deeply a sense of risk-aversion and limits permeates discussions about UK transport. The accident was a fairly spectacular one, true: the train slew off the track, apparently because a motor dropped off the bottom of one of the carriages; the train ricocheted against the tunnel wall, and became filled with black smoke and shattered glass from the windows. For the 32 people injured in the accident, and for all those involved in it, the experience was clearly horrendous and very frightening.

But we need some perspective. Nobody died – nobody was even very seriously injured. And as many have pointed out, accidents such as these on the Underground are incredibly rare. Over the Tube’s 140-year history, there have been two major disasters – a crash in 1975, and the fire in King’s Cross station in 1987. Of all the many, many problems with London’s overcrowded, overcharged, much-delayed, juddery and downright unpleasant Tube system, safety has not been one of them.

That, however, has not stopped the discussion immediately turning into an earnest debate about the need to put Tube safety at the top of the list of priorities, and rumours abounding about worrying sounds and smells on other lines (1). And it hasn’t stopped the London Underground authorities taking a swathe of emergency practical measures apparently designed to wreak chaos across the capital. All Central Line and Waterloo & City Line trains have been withdrawn for urgent safety checks, closing one of the city’s main arteries. As people run around seeking alternative routes, other main Underground stations are frequently closed due to over-crowding – another safety measure.

In their own terms, these specific measures could be understood as a practical – if somewhat over-cautious – response to an unforseen disaster. They can certainly be understood as further proof that London’s creaking public transport infrastructure cannot cope with anything beyond the normal rush-hour (and indeed, it is increasingly incapable of coping with that). But they reflect a broader culture surrounding all transport issues in the UK today, where the only thing transport systems can do is shut down, and the only language that is understood is that of danger and safety.

The developments in UK transport policy over the past five years or so provide a stark example of how low expectations and risk aversion have practical consequences. It’s not only that ambitious projects, of the kind routinely executed in Europe and the USA, never get off the ground. It’s that society cannot even maintain the kind of infrastructure that people 20 years ago took for granted; that trying to get to work in the morning becomes tantamount to demanding a trip to the Moon. And while lack of investment is certainly a problem, it is becoming increasingly clear that the real problem lies at the level of political will.

Take the Tube, for example. If the problem with the London Underground is genuinely – as is claimed – that there are too many people in stations, on platforms or on trains, clearly some modernisation is in order. In the short term, it might help to run more trains. But the actual, practical measures taken by London Underground seem to be at the level of discouraging people from travelling at all – a kind of mental congestion charge upon people.

In this situation, the solution to full trains is apparently to hector people not to get on; the solution to full platforms is to stop people getting down to the platform; the solution to crowded stations is to close the station. Signal failures abound, delays become normal, routine engineering work spills over from the weekend into the week. Meanwhile, posters serve as a continual reminder to commuters of the penalties they face if they shout at London Underground staff.

This isn’t just about sloth and incompetence, and it certainly isn’t about money. The experience of Tube travel today relates to a cultural re-evaluation of the meaning of travel – where the purpose is not to enable people to get where they want, when they want, but to ensure that the infrastructure merely copes. Everything in terms of speed, convenience, reliability and space is sacrificed around the desire to avoid problems, and passengers are expected to put up and shut up.

It was like this before the Chancery Lane accident. Now, we can fully expect things to get a whole lot worse. Once an accident brings the preoccupation with safety and risk-avoidance so prominently to the fore, the justification for shutting things down appears even stronger. Consider the railways.

The UK rail network has been bad for a long time. But after some bad accidents – particularly, the one at Paddington in 1999 and Hatfield in 2000 – the chances of things getting better were irrevocably damaged. Once upon a time, there were discussions about high-speed trains on high-speed lines, about making train travel faster, pleasanter and even (though I may be making this up) cheaper. After the accidents, it became the norm to shut down whole stretches of track for checking, to slow things down and stop things entirely at any whiff of potential problems – including wind, rain and snow.

Once safety became the main priority assigned to the railways, everything else fell by the wayside. As a consequence, such low-level notions as cutting delays by reducing the number of trains in operation – announced by some train operators – are greeted with a grumble, but not much else. Implicit in the idea that safety comes first is the acceptance that nothing else really matters.

Then there are roads. London’s congestion charge, the brainchild of mayor Ken Livingstone, will take effect from 17 February. I haven’t seen this plan justified explicitly in terms of safety – possibly because I haven’t seen many justifications for it at all. But the whole notion of cutting down congestion by stopping people from travelling comes from a broader kind of risk aversion – the fear of thinking big.

When obvious solutions to congestion suggest themselves, such as building more roads or widening roads, these are quickly disparaged, on the grounds that they are considered too politically tricky or difficult to pull off. How much easier to cut out traffic jams by preventing people from travelling – and how much more mean-spirited.

If you want to travel further afield than central London, the congestion charge idea has also been enthusiastically mooted in relation to motorways, along with earnest discussions about the benefits of motorway tolls. If the UK’s motorways were widened and extended, people could drive along them more quickly – radical! Instead, however, we have a few reluctant proposals to widen in places, a dystopian network of speed cameras and an orgy of ideas about preventing people from using their cars. Again, people are expected to put up as the system shuts down – because let’s face it, what else were they expecting?

UK transport needs somebody to take it by the scruff of the neck and sort it out. But in today’s cautionary, think-small climate, preoccupied as it is with everyday crisis management and political expediency, nobody is going to do that. Instead, those responsible for trains, tubes and roads play safe and abdicate responsibility, and their critics try to gain ground by focusing on the wrong problem – safety.

For there are many critics of the trains, tubes and roads. And there is a myriad of obvious problems with ideas like PPP funding for the Underground – even the most conceptually challenged government minister could work out from the experience of the railways that breaking up one system into component parts with conflicting interests is not a bright idea.

But the way that the wreckage of the Chancery Lane derailment has been seized upon as a way of challenging the safety implications of PPP makes my heart sink into my slippers. After all, the only safe way to travel is not to travel at all; and we’ve gone far enough along that route already.

Read on:

For whom the road tolls, by Austin Williams

(1) Tube shutdown prolongs commuter chaos, BBC News, 27 January 2003

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Topics Science & Tech


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