UK rail accident deaths
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UK rail passenger deaths before and after the 1993 privatisation.

Pundits often suggest that privatisation has increased railway accidents because shareholders and managers have cut corners and neglected safety to raise profits.  

They could be right.  Although other privatised transport industries such as airlines and the bus and coach travel industry take passenger safety seriously, maybe rail managers are different.  Perhaps airlines are more safety conscious because of a different regulatory regimes or because their passengers are more demanding of safety.  Perhaps bus and coach operators have good safety records despite rather than because they are largely private.  Maybe ex public employees find it difficult to deal with the pressures of working in a private company?   Far fetched as it may seem, disgruntled rail workers may even engage in sabotage.  Unlikely I agree, but who knows?   Let’s look at the record.

The railways were privatised in 1993, but it is still surprisingly difficult to get all the figures together in one place.   In 2001 in response to a parliamentary question the minister stated “This information can be provided only at disproportionate cost.”   (Click here for details.)   Extraordinary

Fortunately iGreens are on the case.    The table shows the publicly available figures from various sources.   The total number of passenger deaths is from the Health and Safety Executive, which became responsible for rail safety in 1991.    They publish figures from the period 1 April to 31 March each year.   Far from rising after privatisation the figure has remained steady, although the effect of single large accidents such as that at Ladbroke Grove show up clearly.  

However, the numbers of passengers carried by railways rose steadily after privatisation.  This was a welcome reversal of a long decline (click here for the iGreen take on this), but it also means that when death rates are expressed per billion passenger miles the trend is clearly downwards after privatisation.   These figures are shown in the second column for available years.   

The other columns put these figures into perspective.   It is often said that rail deaths are dwarfed by road deaths and indeed they do.  There are over 100 times more passenger deaths in car accidents.   However so many more journeys occur by car that when the figures are expressed per passenger mile, car journeys are only around 3-6 times more dangerous than rail ones.  

Jim Thornton 26 Oct 2002

For another useful link on this click here

Table 1 

Year

Rail Passenger

deaths

Rail Passenger deaths per billion passenger miles*

Rail deaths.

Suicides and trespass

Road deaths[1]

Car deaths per billion passenger miles*

Bus or coach deaths per billion passenger miles*

Air deaths per billion passenger miles*

1981

 

1

 

5,800

6.1

0.3

0.2

1986

 

0.9

 

5,400

5.1

0.5

0.5

1990/91

45

 

 

4,600

 

 

 

1991/92

31

0.8

 

4,250

3.7

0.6

<0.05

1992/93

18

 

 

3,750

 

 

 

Privatisation

1993/94

16

 

 

3,700

 

 

 

1994/95

17

0.14[2]

 

3,600

 

 

 

1995/96

10

0.04[3]

 

3,600

 

 

 

1996/97

17

0.4

252

3,600

3.1

0.2

<0.05

1997/98

26

0.5

265

3,600

3.1

0.3

<0.05

1998/99

20

 

247

3,400

 

 

 

1999/2000

47

 

274

 

 

 

 

2000/2001

21

 

300

 

 

 

 

2001/2002

10

 

275

 

 

 

 

Table 2

Some of the worst UK rail accidents:

10 May 2002: Potters Bar; 7 deaths.  These will count towards the 2002/3 figures

28 February 2001: Great Heck; 10 deaths

17 October 2000: Hatfield; 4 deaths

5 October 1999: Ladbroke Grove, Paddington; 31 deaths

19 September 1997: Southall; 7 deaths

October 1994: Cowden in Kent; 5 deaths.

1990: Cannon Street; 2 deaths, 240 injured.   Newton near Glasgow; 4 deaths.

March 1989: Purley; 5 deaths.

12 December 1988: Clapham; 35 deaths.

July 26 1986: Lockington, Yorkshire; 9 deaths.

July 1984: Derailment 13 deaths.

October 1979: Invergowrie; 5 deaths

February 1975: Moorgate; 43 deaths.

June 1975: Nuneaton; 6 deaths.

December 1973: Ealing; 10 deaths.

May 1969: Morpeth; 6 deaths.

November 1967: Hither Green; 49 deaths.

December 1957: Lewisham; 90 deaths.

October 12, 1952: Wealdstone; 112 deaths.

May 22, 1915, Quintinshill near Gretna Green.  Over 200 deaths. The UK's worst train crash


* Passenger death rates: by mode of transport, 1981-1997 (Selected years): Social Trends 30

[1] Department for Transport. Transport Statistics. Personal Injury Road Accidents: Great Britain 1998 click here

 

* Passenger death rates: by mode of transport, 1981-1997 (Selected years): Social Trends 30

* Passenger death rates: by mode of transport, 1981-1997 (Selected years): Social Trends 30

* Passenger death rates: by mode of transport, 1981-1997 (Selected years): Social Trends 30

 

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Last modified: February 11, 2006