Since mid-October SN109 has become the one signal whose position, among tens of thousands on the railway network, has become widely known to the general public. A driver's error, however it arose, led to a dreadful catastrophe. Maybe - I write this diffidently - the one detectable trace of a silver lining to this disaster has been the focus on railway development that has ensued. In the initial aftermath it has to be said some quite astonishing rubbish was written and broadcast, while several key figures bore up remarkably well under stress, few more so than Gerald Corbett of Railtrack, the organisation too readily deemed chief culprit before even the basic facts had been established. It was a relief to encounter more rational comment in an item in 'The Week' issue 227, quoting Andrew Neil in 'Sunday Business': 'The idea that there is a conflict between profits and safety is absurd unless you assume "that it is good business to kill your customers, smash up your capital stock and expose yourself to tort litigation". . . . serious rail accidents have fallen since British Rail days, despite a huge increase in passenger numbers. When air crashes happen, no one calls for the re-nationalisation of airlines. The fact is that private companies have to be more concerned about safety or they go out of business - as happened to Pan Am after Lockerbie - whereas state-owned firms never go out of business, whatever the accident rate.'
Looking to future railway development, one key factor is hardly ever underlined, or even mentioned - surely John Prescott is aware of it? - namely, that public transport cannot be radically improved until resources have been raised and spent. There will be an appreciable delay. Railway expansion does not come off the shelf. By its nature it is long term. You may get rolling stock from run-on orders fairly soon if franchise renegotiations carry good incentives and measures are put in place to boost additional capital investment meanwhile, and thereafter, but major increased infrastructure capacity to keep abreast of demand will take three to five years to come on stream. We hope Tom Winsor and Alastair Norton will establish a shared vision and strategy for getting things done. There seems a strong chance they will do just that.