The Blog

Journalists and Railways - Sceptical Harrumphing, and a Duty to Maintain Ignorance

Today heralded more hysterical headlines from the Daily Mail and others regarding overrunning engineering works in London...

Today heralded more hysterical headlines from the Daily Mail and others regarding overrunning engineering works in London.

"Signallers reduced to using FLAGS to control 125mph trains!" was the claim trumpeted by the Mail. It is fair to say that this makes great copy, even though these statements have a tenuous foothold in reality. Such hyperbolic claims are nothing new. The media dines out regularly on a diet of railway bashing, and much of it is deserved. But a great percentage of what is written about railway operations is no more representative of reality than the fiction in my debut novel, The Trackman.

Interestingly, government spokespeople, and some commentators promote the view that the latest engineering embarrassment is a result of Network Rail being taken fully into state hands, as if this implicitly validates continuing privatisation, an opinion perpetuated by people with little or no knowledge of the reality. Network Rail directly employ track inspection teams and technical experts following recommendations made after the Potters Bar derailment. Previously they were employed by a myriad of private companies. Major engineering projects and much track maintenance is still is undertaken by private firms, so the fragmentation still exists, though it is shielded from public view by a big, 'Network Rail' shaped umbrella.

This is a symptom of a long standing media ignorance of the rail industry that has transcended decades. As someone who has driven trains for many years, I find the ready supply of sceptical harrumphing at the notion of leaves on the line as irritating as I find it terrifying at times to try and control a freight train, fully loaded with 3000 tonnes of petrol, when crushed leaves coating the rails beneath my locomotive has stopped it behaving like a train and caused it to start skidding like Jane Torvill's left foot on an ice rink.

The Daily Mail and their clandestine photographs of a rail worker in action speak of a desire to see misdeeds where none reside. The particular method of moving SOME trains out of Kings Cross instead of none which was photographed by the Mail, has been used for decades. It is explicitly regulated and controlled. It is cumbersome and time consuming because it HAS to be, to ensure safety is maintained above all else. No train travels under these procedures at 125mph. The maximum permitted speed is 50mph. Period.

Irritation aside, the continued misrepresenting of this industry by the press undermines everything we try to achieve. Becoming proficient in working safely on the railways is a long, demanding and complicated process. For Trainee Drivers it can take upto a year, and every bit of that time is accounted for within a comprehensive syllabus. Trainees are bombarded with legislation, rules, regulations, signals, signs, exemptions, procedures, checklists and technical data at high intensity. They are examined and assessed weekly, to exacting standards. I assessed some trainees before Christmas, and questioned them hard and relentlessly for hours. I did this for two reasons: Firstly, because learning about railways is like learning a new language. I needed to ensure they were developing a fluency that will assist them in maintaining the highest standards that are rightly expected of them, and secondly, to satisfy my own mind that if my wife and children boarded a train sharing the network with a locomotive being driven by one of these trainees, they would be safe in doing so.

Problems inevitably arise when systems are impeded by the influence or opinion of those who hold little or no knowledge. The railway is no different. I spend my working life preparing the next generations of railway professionals for the demands of keeping you, me and everyone else safe. The continued distortion of truth is now a target of ridicule from within our profession. Rather than stationing photographers in bushes, or deliberately twisting fact and truth, those writing endless stories of railway related indignant aggression on behalf of the mainstream media would be best served, and taken more seriously if they simply came and asked questions of those of us who possess knowledge of fact. You never know, they might just learn something.