48 Hours in France: Rules, Railways and Tombstone Technology

48 Hours in France: Rules, Railways and Tombstone Technology

In the wake of the last few days, the thoughts of the world are undoubtedly with those suffering the effects of a seminal moment in the history of the French Republic. The wise and the considered are calling for calm, reflection, and a worship of fact over propaganda, something that the murkier depths of social media, and wider society could do well to emulate in the heated days following the ghastly atacks on Paris. This issue is not as one dimensional as people think, and could have been exponentially more deadly, but for the actions of one security guard at the Stade de France. Named only as Zouheir, a Muslim no less, the vigilance and bravery of this man repelled one of the suicide bombers from entering the stadium. He did his job, in accordance with the rules, and did so with bravery. He saved lives.

In contrast to the adherance to a rule saving lives and creating a reluctant hero, as the world recoiled from the deadly events in Paris, the already injured republic was again wounded when a test train from the flagship "LGV" programme was derailed on a section of line at Eckwerscheim, near Strasbourg. The train was travelling at over 200mph according to reports. After derailing, the train came off a bridge, careered down and embankment, and the leading locomotive became submerged in a canal. As I write this, 3 people are still missing from the estimated passenger total of 50. It is now heartbreakingly clear that there were children on board, undoubtedly the offspring of the technicians and crew. SNCF and the French government have, thus far, failed to clarify as to whether any of these children are among the 11 fatalities.

Many arms of the press have been quick to point to a comment from a French official stating that "excessive speed" was to blame, but I would caution anyone who was left thinking that this is an open and shut case of a train being derailed at the hands of a cavalier Driver.

This train was involved in the completion of what is termed "Dynamic testing". This is a process which can, on occasion, involve the running of a test train at speeds in excess of the published maximum for the line. It is perfectly normal, and usually safe, given that risk assessments are thoroughly completed beforehand, and that the maximum published speed for any line is usually a considerably lower speed than the maximum tolerance of the rail! It happens regularly in the UK, with test trains running at upto 140mph on the East Coast Main Line at selected locations. When testing the Class 91 Locomotive and coaching stock, (now in service with Virgin Trains East Coast as their electric trains) British Rail ran the test train at a recorded 168mph! Test trains running in permitted excedence of published maximum speed is nothing new, nor is it unsafe when planned properly. The LGV train had been authorised to run at upto 10% over the maximum speed for that line. SNCF and the French safety authorities have yet to confirm as to whether these test authorisations contributed to the mishap, or whether there is evidence of a failure of the Permanent Way, Rolling Stock or other issue.

One pressing issue that must be addressed is the question of why the children of testing staff were permitted board the train. Who authorised this? Were SNCF aware of it? Did the train crew know? Is it common practice? Does this point to an unhealthy approach to the rulebook on the part of the staff? Does it indicate a weak managerial presence? Did it in any way contribute to the incident, or was it just a tragic parallel?

Whatever the preliminary findings of the investigation into the incident, I find it regretful that a potentially misleading impression of the cause of this mishap has been so readily circulated by a press who have little understanding of our industry, and no motivation to remedy their ignorance.

For our part as Railway Trainers and Managers, these incidents dovetail conveniently in terms of demonstrating the benefit of applying the published rule. That heroic security guard in the Stade de France, Zouheir, did his job to a high standard. He applied his training, and he became a positive influence on a ghastly scenario. Those involved in the management of the LGV test train at Eckwerscheim, and those on board can cling to no such comfort. Regardless of the primary cause of the derailment, children were permitted to ride on a train that was explicitly for staff only. Rules were not followed, lives have been ended or changed forever, and the reputation of the global industry tarnished needlessly once more, at a time when the expansion of rail could not be more vital.

I never tire of telling my trainees about how the rulebook is an altar to those who have perished at the hands of major and minor mishaps the world over. Eckwerscheim is no different. Whilst we do not know what the primary cause is, the lessons are still stark, and are still there. It is easy to shrug off the demands of the rulebook when we are overconfident and blasé with our tasks and surroundings. Sadly, this universal human flaw has proved fatal, not just for those at fault, but seemingly inevitably for at least some of their children.

This week, France has provided a multitude of lessons, ranging from the indefatigability of the human spirit, to how effective a bulwark against disaster one person can turn out to be, when they apply the rules they have been taught. We have also been schooled in the price of media ignorance, both social and technical, and whilst the battle to repudiate social ignorance is a battle beyond the scope of railway leaders, this technical ignorance of rail is something we as an industry have lost the battle over, largely due to our own fault, for decades. The French official who blamed Eckwerscheim so rashly on "excessive speed" needs to be banned from smartphones, keyboards, and all other forms of mass communication! It may well have been a genuinely honest comment, given the lack of context, a lack of understanding on his/her part, or a combination of the two!

What we need to do as an industry is to talk at the right times, learn when to keep our counsel, and learn the ways and the shorthand of the popular press, so that we may better promote a wider understanding of the technical and heavily regulated operation of trains, as well as avoiding further needless and misleading own goals. These vital lessons however, take a distant back seat in the syllabus when compared to the need to learning the lessons of what caused this flagship train to plunge into a canal, and what snuffed out 11 lives in the midst of what should have been a routine day's duty, and to reinforcing the lessons of the incident to avoid a repeat. Just like Zouheir, we must do our duty, and do it unflinchingly.

Before You Go