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February 6, 2006

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Winning over the public

The safety record of the rail industry is a familiar media target since the tragic events of accidents such as Hatfield. But is the negative view of rail safety commonly presented in newspapers, and reported via television and radio an accurate indicator of public opinion?

MORI research reveals that trust in the railway has actually increased since Hatfield. This trust, however, is predominantly in the drivers of the trains (81 per cent) as opposed to the people managing the railways (39 per cent).

Carole Lehman of MORI compared research from 2003 and 2005, before and after Hatfield, that suggested the media has affected the public view of the industry. More importantly, the research suggests what public expectations the industry has to meet to win back confidence.

Media savvy

The media has a clear monopoly on framing public opinion as stories break, when police authorities, train operators and safety organisations all scramble to release accurate information at the same time. Only 7 per cent of respondents to the 2005 MORI research cited rail operators or organisations representing the rail industry as the source of information on health and safety matters for rail, whereas 73 per cent cited radio/television news and 61 per cent newspapers.

Public opinion, however, is not as predictable as one might think. One survey question advised respondents that over the last ten years, seven people were killed per year in train accidents and then asked whether the respondent would have expected this figure to be higher or lower: the number of respondents who expected a higher number fell from 66 per cent in 2003 (before Hatfield) to 52 per cent in 2005 (after Hatfield). A larger figure might have been expected, given the media attention to railway incidents. The results imply that public perception of risk is quite realistic, despite the amount of negative publicity surrounding the rail industry.

A group effort

Only a quarter of people surveyed actually want a say in rail safety at all, the rest saying that operators and rail organisations should be left to manage it. The survey showed that rail safety in general is considered a shared responsibility, and not the remit of one particular operator or organisation, not even the HSE. Rail is, however, seen as the least effective in safety implementation compared with other methods of travel, with 25 per cent of respondents in 2005 calling it not at all effective, and 49 per cent calling it fairly effective. The public, it would seem, have high hopes but see a disappointing result.

So, what lessons can rail safety practitioners learn from this research? Lehman told delegates: “Rail accident rates are thought to be worse than they actually are, but at the same time safety is not a major concern to the general public — it is a ‘given’.”

If we are to improve the public perception of rail safety, it is clear that every aspect of safety management must be demonstrated and the media must applaud the industry as opposed to simply reporting its failures. If the public can put their trust in the train driver, they should also be able to trust his manager to do his duties away from the track itself.

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