Today a friend from way back who is a structural engineer by profession dropped by. He is semi-retired now, but was not so long ago a pretty big cheese in the bridge designing trade. He still has quite a bit of influence on bridge designing, albeit rather less now than he used to have.
He told me of an engineering bee, concerning train safety, now buzzing about inside his head.
Trains are, on the whole, he said, very safe. But apparently level crossings are the big train exception. A trickle of deaths? A rather big trickle, he replied. “Scores every year” was the phrase I recall him using. I don’t know if that’s quite right, but level crossing deaths are certainly a big deal in Britain.
Perhaps partly because he is a bridge designer, my friend believes that where possible and where not too disruptive and expensive, level crossings should be replaced by … bridges.
Trouble is, there is an acronymic organisation (I think he was talking about this one) concerned with British train safety, which demands very large clearances, both upwards and sideways, for all new road bridges over railways. And it takes only a small increase in a demanded clearance size to require a greatly more elaborate and expensive bridge. Which means that a lot of bridges, that might be built, aren’t.
Partly this demand for big clearances is because at some future date the railway line in question might be electrified, and in the meantime, space must be left under all bridges for that.
My friend says: Fine. In the meantime build smaller but temporary bridges. If electrification ever happens, replace these small bridges with bigger bridges. (Or, I suppose, go back to having level crossings, although that possibility wasn’t mentioned.) Meanwhile, save many lives now lost at level crossings.
But partly, the reason is a safety consideration of another kind. Says the acronymic organisation: all imaginable train wobblings, including the most unlikely, must be allowed to occur under all future bridges without any train afflicted by such wobbling hitting the bridge, even though many existing bridges allow for no such wobblings, with no detectable effect on train fatalities.
Result? The rather big trickle of deaths at level crossings goes on, and on, and on. In the pursuit of even more perfect safety where perfect safety has pretty much already been achieved, a closely related and very unsafe circumstance is caused to persist.
The pursuit of safety, badly done, is resulting in the persistence of unsafety.
When people now speak, as they so often now do, of “health and safety gone mad”, this is one of the things they surely mean. It isn’t just that safety is pursued and damn everything else. Safety is also pursued in accordance with mindless rules, that have the effect of reducing safety itself.
Something tells me that this is not the only example of such perverse safety thinking.