Reaction to Berkshire train crash

Last Saturday a high-speed express train from London to Plymouth hit a car which had been driven, or become stuck, on a level crossing west of Reading (pronounced Redding) in Berkshire. The radio phone-in show in London today was buzzing with discussion about “what can be done”, never mind the fact that this sort of thing almost never happens. This country has no real high-speed trains like those in France or Germany, which are built along special lines with no level crossings. British rail lines are all of one gauge (apart from a few small railways, mostly seasonal and used by tourists), and were mostly built bit-by-bit, with the notable exception of the famous London-Bristol line built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The top speed is currently 125mph, although there are trains capable of doing 140, and the Eurostar trains which go through the Channel Tunnel are expected to go much faster when the special line finally opens. And they go straight across roads at level crossings at that speed.

Every so often people have got killed on level crossings, but it’s only this time, when someone appears to have committed suicide by parking his car on one, that people have been talking of eliminating the danger by building bridges and tunnels to entirely replace level crossings, which would cost billions, or slowing the trains down as they approach the crossings. Thing is, there are so many of them that doing this would simply eliminate express trains, and even if a train hits a car at, say, 60mph, people would still get killed. Particularly the driver.

Other suggestions included diverting some of the much-hated speed cameras to level crossings, to photograph drivers who go over level crossings at red. Which is a somewhat more constructive idea, although a £1000 fine (over $1,800 at the time of writing) isn’t. The problem is that not every disaster can, or should, lead to “something being learned”, at huge expense or inconvenience to everyone else. After the notorious Dunblane massacre in 1996, for instance, draconian anti-gun laws were passed, and the same happened after a massacre in Port Arthur, Tasmania, around the same time. The “Dangerous Dogs Act”, passed in the UK after a series of incidents where children were attacked by bull terriers, resulted in dogs being seized after their owners removed their muzzles to help them vomit. To say nothing of the “lessons learned” from 9/11. Often these measures are the result to “hit out” at someone, when the people really responsible are dead.

People also brought up the possibility of this tactic being used by terrorists, which it could be, especially now that someone has “put the idea about”. Never mind the fact that the “inevitable” al-Qa’ida attack has yet to happen more than three years after 9/11, and the threat of terrorism is no reason to drastically reduce the usefulness and capacity of the railways, especially given that if action is taken on this front, and there are terrorists waiting to attack, they will attack some other way. The only way to hold off terrorist attacks is not to get involved in other people’s wars.

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