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Death on the railway

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Like so many others, I was shocked and saddened by the news from Stonehaven.

Saddened, because three people had lost their lives, two doing their job of work and one trustingly using the railway as a mode of transport.

Shocked, because it is 13 years since this has happened. Then, a Pendolino operated by Virgin Trains came off the railway at high speed over a set of points. It, too, plunged down an embankment. One person died.

So, since 23 February 2007, the railway has been a completely safe mode of transport. The fact that it isn’t, adds to the shock.

As does the sheer violence of the impact. 270 tonnes of train coming off the track at 70mph has a lot of kinetic energy, and when it stops suddenly the result is both spectacular and terrifying.

However, the one adjective I haven’t yet used is surprised. While the railway is as safe as it can be made, although some sensationalists will always use hindsight to say more should have been done, it isn’t – and never can be – 100 per cent safe.

In fact, people are hurt or die on the railway almost every day. In 2019/2020, 306 people died on the railway, not including this accident at Stonehaven and the track worker deaths that were much publicised at the time.

The majority of those, 283, were suicides. It is a particularly selfish form of suicide – not that all suicides aren’t selfish in some way – but it has a dreadful effect on the railway staff involved. The drivers are possibly the worst affected – they can’t steer out of the way, can’t brake in time, all they can do is watch through the windscreen.

Station staff who see it happen, and may attempt to prevent it, can be traumatised as well. They, with the drivers, are the unwilling participants in these dramas.

Then there are the clean-up crews. The British Transport Police officers who have to control the scene and try to establish whether the person jumped or was pushed. The track itself has to be cleared by people in full PPE carrying plastic sacks. Then, when the train gets back to the depot, more cleaners in full hazmat suits have to get underneath it and powerwash it off. It can be said that these people at least know what they are letting themselves in for, but it can’t help but have an effect on them.

In addition to suicides, 17 trespassers were killed last year, people who were on the railway when they shouldn’t have been. Graffiti ‘artists’ spray-painting railway infrastructure or drunks taking a short cut. They put themselves at risk.

So, too, may have the six people who died on level crossings. They may have been impatient, or distracted, or just careless.

But the big difference between all of those and the three killed at Stonehaven was that they had entrusted themselves into someone else’s care. The two employees, the driver and conductor, trusted their employer to get them home safely after their shift, while the passenger had entrusted the train operator to get him safely to his destination.

And the railway let them down.

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