Governmental Homicide

Cambridge 2000 memos

May 2001

The UK rail services were privatised by the previous Tory government and as a result when a train accident happens (e.g. at Hatfield) the media pundits immediately shout about the horrible train companies (in particular Railtrack) "putting profit before safety", indeed there are usually even calls for charges of "corporate homicide".

Unfortunately in the real world there is always a balance between cost and safety, and it is impossible to make trains perfectly safe (unless you stop them running) no matter how much you spend on them. No doubt Railtrack could make the track much more safe by spending twice as much as they currently do, but would commuters want to pay twice as much for their tickets. Of course not, they would want the government to foot the bill, i.e. the taxpayer, i.e. non-commuters, i.e. everybody else. Everybody loves safety as long as someone else is paying for it.

Of course it is the job of government to set minimum safety standards which everybody has to adhere to, and if a company is found to be in breach of these standards then they should pay the price. But just stating that the trains (or whatever) are not safe enough is missing half of the story. You can always make things safer, but only if you are willing to pay for it. And society has to agree as a whole what is the point of diminishing returns. Trains are an extremely safe means of transport, even in private hands. People who want more safety but are not willing to pay for it should be ignored.

As it happens it is not just companies that "put profit before safety", the government does as well. The A14 is a major road for commuters who work in Cambridge, and it is a complete disaster. For one thing it is extremely poorly designed (e.g. entry junctions at 90 degrees and an amazingly poor junction with the M11 motorway). For another thing it does not have nearly enough capacity for the current requirements. As a result there are many accidents on the A14, many of which could be directly attributed to these problems.

The UK government has known about this situation for years, but has done nothing about it because it does not want to spend any money improving the road (well, enough to solve the situation properly). This is a perfect example of "putting profit before safety". Of course the UK government might argue that the UK taxpayer does not want to pay more tax, which is a similar situation to that discussed above, but the A14 cannot be considered to be a safe road by almost any definition, so really ought to be improved, and drivers pay more money in vehicle and petrol taxes than is spent on roads.

As it happens there has been a government initiative to discuss ways to improve the A14, but as with most government projects it will take ten or twenty years to happen, if it happens at all. Perhaps every time someone dies on the A14 cabinet ministers and top civil servants should be charged with "governmental homicide". That might encourage them to get their act together and do something rather than just talk and write memos.

[ On 1 April 2003 (so hopefully not an April Fool's joke) the government announced that money would be allocated to widen (and hopefully also improve the design of) the A14. The earliest the work will be finished is 2010. ]

Cambridge 2000 memos