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A Short History of Railway Safety

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William _Huskisson _660

Travelling by train is one of the safest modes of transport around - depending on which article you read it’s somewhere in the top three safest in the world.

But like all mass transport methods, when something does go wrong there are often terrible consequences (see our previous post about locomotive boiler explosions) meaning public perceptions do not always match the statistical reality.

When was the first railway accident?

I remember from my school history lessons being told that the first railway casualty was MP and statesman William Huskisson (pictured above) who was fatally wounded in 1830 at by inventor George Stephenson’s legendary steam locomotive Rocket.

The tragic death happened at the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester railway when Huskisson and some other dignitaries, against the advice of the railway owners, got off the train during a scheduled stop to take on water.

This, however, was not the first recorded railway fatality - just the first that was widely reported since it involved a public figure.

The first occurred many years earlier in the pre-industrial revolution period, before steam locomotives really took off.  It happened in 1650 in Whickham, County Durham when two boys were run over by a wooden coal wagon.

Disturbingly this is likely not to have been the first actual accident or the last - but another accident was not recorded for another 150 years.

Are there standard railway safety guidelines and when were they developed?

Railways were not always the statistically safe places they are now - for workers especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries they were a very dangerous place to be.

In 1840 HM Railway Inspectorate was created to oversee safety on Britain’s railways which were all private companies at that time - whilst it seemed quite active in investigating passenger safety issues it’s debatable how effective it was in improving matters for railway workers.

The National Railway Museum some great resources about railway safety throughout it’s history.  According to their website 16 thousand workers were killed or injured in 1900 alone!

It wasn’t until trade unions became a powerful political force that worker safety was pushed onto the agenda, up until then the general public only seemed concerned with passenger safety.

What are the most common accidents that occur on railways?

Unsurprisingly the number of accidents on railways fluctuate from year to year.  According to Eurostat (a site explaining european statistics - wow!) Safety in rail transport had been gradually improving until 2013 when things took a bit of a dip in 2014.

The good news is that 2016 saw the lowest ever levels recorded across the EU - however we also rooted out a set of rail safety statistics by the Office of Rail and Road concerning specifically the UK and 2014 was actually had the lowest number of fatalities (unfortunately the opposite was also true of 2016 which saw the highest).

Shockingly the figures from Eurostat show that 99% of fatalities are caused by two types of accident - rolling stock in motion being the main culprit in most European countries, and accidents at level crossings being the other.

Is there anything we should’ve mentioned?

Do you have any thoughts, comments or views on Railway accidents or Railway Safety?

Is there anything you think we should have mentioned?

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By Alastair Baker at 14 Feb 2018, 00:00 AM