Safety on Europe's railways is improving but the pace of progress has slowed, partly because of insufficient investment in infrastructure – and further harmonisation of rules may be the most effective solution, writes the European Railway Agency
Railways are one of the safest modes of transport in the European Union and safety performance has continued to improve over the past two decades. The estimated average number of fatal train accidents per year in European countries stood at 18 in 1990, but was down to six by 2010. The introduction of automatic train protection systems, high-speed rail networks and gradual improvements in the application of safety management systems are viewed as major contributors to this achievement.
However, this positive trend has been slowing down in recent years, in particular since 2004. Insufficient investment in infrastructure is often quoted as a possible reason for this. Indeed, according to the data collected by Eurostat and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development/International Transport Forum, the proportion of gross domestic product invested in rail infrastructure in the EU has decreased slightly from its peak of 0.38 per cent in 2003. Despite this overall downward trend, there has been a marked increase in infrastructure investments in the 12 new entrant countries that joined in 2004 and 2007.
For the year 2010, the member states reported 2,401 significant railway accidents with 2,500 casualties. Of the 1,256 fatalities reported, 750 were third-party victims, that is, unauthorised persons on railway premises. Train collisions, derailments and fires cause less than 3 per cent of fatalities, while accidents to unauthorised persons hit by rolling stock in motion and level crossing accidents have a share of up to 90 per cent of fatalities on EU railways. Yet it is possible to prevent many of these accidents: a significantly high proportion of unauthorised person fatalities, and suicides, occur on a limited number of tracks. These can be equipped with effective fencing and modern surveillance technologies in order to save lives.
Suicides on European railways are counted separately to other railway fatalities. Over 2,743 suicides were recorded in 2010 – more than 50 per week on average. Suicide fatalities cause significant delays in train operation; however, how much these delays really cost remains unknown, as the majority of countries do not produce any relevant figures. It could be argued that the reliability of the service has become a leading criterion for passengers when choosing their mode of transport.
Level crossing accidents alone account for about 30 per cent of fatalities on EU railways, and unlike other types of accident, their number has not seen any significant reduction over the past two decades. This may be partly explained by a continuous increase in traffic on EU roads, but there may be other underlying reasons: the lack of accountability for safe level crossing operation among different authorities is accentuated by the persistence of a blame culture. Countries like Sweden may be showing an example to follow – a unique transport administration is responsible for the safety of transport users, with priority areas determined by a detailed risk and cost-benefit analysis across all available modes of transport.
While the current level of safety of EU railways could be considered satisfactory, additional risk reduction may be achieved by the application of measures not originally implemented for this purpose, such as those measures to improve reliability, security and functionality of rail services. In the longer term, the harmonisation of processes, approaches and rules for safety may well prove to be the most effective driving force.Vojtech Eksler is a project officer at the European Railway Agency. This article first appeared in PublicServiceEurope.com's sister publication Public Service Review: Transport