Visiting Professor George Bearfield also argues that greater use of automation could make rail travel even safer

THE introduction of driver-only trains has led to long-running industrial disputes that have affected millions of UK commuters.  But analysis by a University of Huddersfield professor shows that they are just as safe as trains with guards.  He also argues that greater use of automation could make rail travel even safer and increase capacity by removing bottlenecks on the network.

George Bearfield is Director of System Safety and Health at RSSB.  A graduate of the University of Huddersfield, he is a Visiting Professor of Rail Safety at its Institute of Railway Research.

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After analysing data from  UK and European rail networks, he has written an online article that includes a statistical finding that the numbers of fatal and major incidents involving passengers boarding or alighting trains are highest for trains with both driver and guard when entering or leaving unstaffed platforms, where driver-only trains have proved to be slightly safer.

From staffed platforms, driver-only trains are shown to have been significantly safer than those with doors operated by a guard.

However, the actual numbers of accidents per billion passengers are so low that the risk can be classed as negligible, writes Professor Bearfield.

“The total fatality risk per year to a regular commuter due to all causes is estimated as 1 in 400,000 per annum.  The train dispatch related risk (by any method) is approximately 1 in 6.7 million per year.

“These risks are well below the level that the Health and Safety Executive defines as ‘negligible’.  In other words, the risk associated with train dispatch (by any method) is a tiny fraction of the risk people face in their everyday lives, and far less than the chance of being struck by lightning,” states the article.

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Visiting Professor George Bearfield (centre) with the Institute of Railway Research's Coen Van Gulijk

Professor Bearfield’s figures also show that travel by GB rail is the least risky mode of land transport in Europe.  It is considerably safer than cars and buses, and also the European rail network.

“GB rail companies are much less accepting of safety risk than any of their peers,” writes Professor Bearfield.

He seeks to understand why the issue of driver despatch of trains has proved so controversial, writing that: “Industry decisions need to be logical, rational and consistent.  But a decision made on robust safety arguments could be undermined by lack of public trust if the key facts are not understood by the public.  This has been the case with the debate around the safety of driver dispatched trains.  

“Also, the safety of driver dispatched trains has become confused with the very important, but distinct, issues of disability access and perceptions of public security.”

Technological development is leading to increased automation on the railways, such as train-operated warning systems and obstacle detection at level crossings, writes Professor Bearfield.

“Automation can help us overcome a range of challenges, for example unlocking capacity bottlenecks,” he concludes.

“When it comes to safety, automation will enable us to make the next step change by reducing exposure to harm, removing the variable element of human behaviour managing important controls, and making better use of our unique talents as human beings.

“As an industry, we must continue to analyse data objectively and take timely, rational decisions.  By applying this risk-based approach, we will continue to improve the health and safety on Britain’s railway; and fear about safety should not be an obstacle for embracing innovation.”