30 JUNE 2001, Page 30

The dangers of safety

From Mr William Barter Sir: Gerald Corbett's much-derided comment that railway safety is like a journey without an end was in fact one of the most perceptive comments of the whole postLadbroke Grove debate.

One point that Ross Clark does not make (The politics of fear', 23 June) is that not only is the objective of absolute safety unachievable, but each step aimed ostensibly at improving safety brings with it a new set of risks that may have the opposite effect. For instance: 1) Central door-locking cuts the risk of falls from moving trains, but is not so desirable when the coach is on fire and passengers want to get out.

2) Electrification would eliminate fires of diesel fuel, but at Southall and Hatfield casualties were caused in the vehicles that struck overhead line support structures.

3) Trains have been fitted with obstacle deflectors since the Polmont derailment, caused by a cow on the line. However, there is a suspicion that at Hatfield the obstacle deflector of the rear coach, by dragging on the ballast after the initial derailment, placed extra stress on the couplings. This may have contributed to the train splitting, allowing the middle vehicles to pile up.

It seems that at Ladbroke Grove the main problems lay not in inadequate procedures but in failure to use properly those that existed. The introduction of new procedures or equipment to guard against this may have quite the opposite effect.

William Barter

Towcester, Northamptonshire