“the London Underground is the safest metro system in Europe” [campaign site]
“we have one of the safest metro systems in the world” [twitter]
BackBoris2012 campaign, 2012
“London Underground is the safest significant railway in Europe”
Transport for London, 2 August 2011
The 2012 London Mayoral campaign has been coloured by claims to do with the Underground network, and Full Fact has already explored the question of whether Ken Livingstone can deliver on his promised fares cut.
Earlier today the Boris Johnson campaign reiterated the much-cited claim that the London Underground system is the safest in the world, and the campaign site continues to claim it is the safest metro system in Europe.
So are Tube travellers really this safe?
As far as being the safest network in Europe is concerned, Boris Johnson’s campaign team pointed us towards figures cited by Transport for London (TfL). The claim was made in a paper from the TfL Safety, Health and Environment Assurance Committee. It states early on:
“The chart on page 14 shows that UK national rail (not including LU [London Underground]) is the third safest in Europe, beaten only by Sweden and Luxembourg and over three times better than the European average.
The chart on page 15 shows that, measured on respective fatality rates (the same measure used for the chart on page 14), LU is approximately five times safer than UK national rail and that, therefore, LU is the safest significant railway in Europe and around 15 times safer than the European mainline rail average.”
The charts in question are drawn from the Office for Rail Regulation (ORR) Health and Safety Report for 2010/11. These were compiled using data from TfL, the ORR, the Department for Transport and Eurostat.
To understand the references, here is the chart on page 14 of the report from Eurostat data, which indeed shows the UK is third in Europe for network safety in terms of fatalities per million train kilometers. Only accidents relating to trains in motion are included:
And here is the chart on page 15, which shows the fatality and injury rate of the London Underground compared to the UK Mainline. This chart demonstrates that, in terms of fatalities per billion journeys, the Mainline rate is around five times that of the Tube rate:
Deaths and injuries resulting from natural causes, trespassing, suicide and terrorism are ommitted from this chart.
However, there is a glaring difference between how the ORR and TfL report the figures. The ORR states that the first graph demonstrates that “we have one of the safest railways in Europe”, which seems fair given the data presented.
But TfL describes the combination of the two graphs as proving that the London Underground is the “safest significant railway in Europe”. This raises some concerns.
The data presented by the two graphs certainly shows the UK national network is the third safest in Europe by fatality rate, and that the Tube is safer on a similar (though not precisely equivalent) measure compared to the UK Mainline.
However it would be wrong to interpret from these graphs that the London Underground is the safest metro network in Europe. For one thing, TfL told Full Fact that Europe-wide comparable metro network data is difficult to get hold of.
So while the Tube may compare favourably to the UK Mainline, which in turn performs well on safety in a European context, it is possible that other metro systems may outperform their own national safety records by a larger margin. We cannot compare the safety records of European metro systems specifically from this data alone.
TfL explained that the lack of precise data justified their specific use of the term ‘significant railway’. While the data does not prove the Underground is the safest metro system in Europe, they maintained that the Tube was large enough to be measured alongside national rail networks.
However, this does not resolve the significant number of caveats that must be attached when comparing the two charts.
Firstly, the top chart concerns fatalities for both the workforce and passengers whereas the lower chart concerns passengers alone – so any different patterns in the fatality rates for these groups could confound the comparison.
Secondly, the units of measurement are not equivalent – one measures fatalities by train kilometers travelled and the other by passenger journeys. The Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB) say that this can have an effect on comparing the Tube to the Mainline:
“This may be due to different passenger profiles and the frequency and regularity of services (people tend to spend less time waiting for trains in tube stations and trains calling at a platform tend to serve the same, or a smaller set of, destinations).”
Thirdly, the two charts actually use a different definition of ‘passenger’. The European Railway Agency defines it as someone who is on, boarding or alighting from a train. The UK’s measure also includes people on platforms and certain members of the public.
After contacting the ORR, they confirmed to Full Fact that suicides were not included in either dataset – however they informed us that the two datasets were distinct and any attempt to compare the two directly would be problematic.
TfL nevertheless assured Full Fact however that the charts were comparable and that, provided the ‘significant railway’ term was acknowledged, they still indicated the London Underground was relatively safe compared to national rail networks.
One of the safest networks in the world?
An associated but different claim is that the Tube network is one of the safest in the world. Transport for London have claimed this as far back as 2007 and London Mayor Boris Johnson has himself used the claim on several occasions previous to his campaign’s tweet this morning.
This claim can be traced back to a TripAdvisor poll from several years ago which asked 2,000 travellers their views on aspects of various transport systems including pricing, safety, cleanliness, and overall quality of service.
However, the usefulness of using a sample of travellers as opposed to comparable figures such as those provided by the Office for Rail Regulation is limited, so while the claim is not incorrect, it should not be overstated.
The claim from Boris Johnson’s campaign that the UK has the ‘safest metro system in Europe’ is not supported by the data from the Office for Rail Regulation. The data does not provide comparable metro statistics and hence there is no evidence available to back up the claim.
TfL claim the Tube is the safest ‘significant railway’ in Europe. While the data certainly lends some evidence to indicate the Tube is a relatively safe network, the differences and caveats between the datasets make the conclusion that it is the safest such railway thoroughly unreliable.
Full Fact will be contacting Boris Johnson’s campaign to correct their statement so that it better reflects the statistics.