Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not the Right Lines

In those far off days when Britannia had a few ships, she ruled the waves and, with a good many miles of track, the railways of the world into the bargain. India alone had over 20,000 miles of imperially run trains.
Visiting the UK last week I was struck by the number of railways companies in operation, some with odd names such as C2C and others whose names defy history, such as First Great Western. The first Great Western was, of course, that of Isambard Kingdom Brunel who must be spinning in his grave at the fate of his magnificent line to the West country. The rejection of his vastly superior seven foot gauge in favour of the four foot eight and a half inches of his contemporaries (because it was the distance between the wheels of m'lord's carriage) was bad enough, but applying the name to the current service is probably actionable.
However, my week in London was pretty uneventful. Nobody tried to blow me up and I was fortunate in that I did not have to attend the concert to save the planet. A good many did and undoubtedly they all walked to Wembley to avoid leaving their carbon hoof prints.
A tube train did fall of the rails due to the maintenance men failing to realise that odd bits of junk left lying about were likely to cause this, and the contractors have now issued a memo to their staff to try and avoid doing this.
The newspapers rejoiced, for they were able to pull out their banner headlines, left in standing type for such occasions, such as 'Rail Horror' and 'Terror on the Tube.' In fact only a few people suffered minor injuries and the driver went home for a cup of tea and a lie down.
My curiosity was aroused on the question of safety on the rail network and so I turned to that handy compendium of pretty useless trivia, Whitaker's Almanack. My edition is for the year 1900 and I'm sure you all have a copy lying around, as would any self respecting household.
The turn of that century marked the end of the railway building frenzy that had improved the fortunes of the robber barons who made their money by investing in such enterprises.
No fewer than 38 separate companies were listed for 1899 and the almanac pointed out that safety was improving. Only 153 passengers had been rubbed out that year in train accidents.
So it is fair to say that the rate of fatalities has declined over the years, although the robber barons are still benefiting themselves at the expense of the traveller, apparently nowadays with the connivance of government.
For those seeking employment in the business, from Whitaker's I see that the dodgiest job is that of the Permanent Way Men who had 122 fatalities but even being a station master was not without risk. Three died on the the job that year.
Perhaps, as happened earlier, in the fullness of time, this present absurd rail system will evolve into a four company affair or, even better, become re-nationalised to provide a service to the taxpayer and not to line the pockets of the directors of the various companies.



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