December 2011


Overly Focused on Safety: Riding the Rails at Cheltenham Spa

Cheltenham Spa Railway Station Statistics

After managing to retrieve my pre-booked train ticket from the automat at the Cheltenham Spa Train Station, I headed toward platform one, which services trains headed southbound to places like Bristol.

At the top of the stairs, I noticed the above sign, which ended up providing me enough food for thought that a week later I’m still puzzled by both of the signs.

Firstly, related to the sign on the left, I think that the accident rate is incredibly small: according to the statistics on the Wikipedia page, in the 2009-2010 Fiscal Year, some 1.599 million passengers used Cheltenham Spa Railway Station that year.

It is a little unclear as to if the number 3 applies to just this staircase or to both staircases.

Assuming it is just one single staircase,  I have to make some further assumptions, which include (1) traffic has held steady (reasonable given that it appears to have done nothing but grow, and I don’t need perfect numbers); (2) that passengers are roughly equally divided between platforms one and two.

In other words, that “last year” some 0.7995 million people – or 799,500 – used platform one.

Now passengers do have a choice between the stairs and a ramp, but… the ramp is long and takes a long time to traverse, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual percentage using the stairs was 90%, but I’ll be conservative in my guestament and say 75% use the stairs: so, say 599,625 used the stairs – about 1,643 people every day, with probably half of those going up and half going down. I’m also assuming that only passengers access the platforms, nobody actually goes onto the platform to meet people or to say good-bye (which is totally possible at Cheltenham Spa, unlike many major train stations in the UK).

Either way – I would say that if there were only 3 accidents among those 599,925 people over the course of the “last year”, then that’s a damned safe staircase, and if it was actually only 3 accidents among 1.599 million passengers, then I’d give an award to the designer of the staircase and its maintenance staff.

The second sign fascinated me on another count: why must trains shut and lock their doors 40 seconds prior to departure?

It seems to me that 40 seconds in the train business is a long time – and a rule that I’ve not experienced in my travels on trains in other countries. Now I’ll admit that it has actually been awhile since I’ve ridden a train in Germany (I do ride S- and U-Bahns), but as far as I can remember, once the departure time comes, and nobody’s standing in the doorway, the train driver shuts the door, looks out the window to make sure that nothing is obviously wrong, and goes.

I couldn’t imagine an U-Bahn train waiting for 40 seconds after its doors were shut before leaving the station – nor can I imagine it happening on the LondonTube – and, actually, it doesn’t happen on the Tube–at least based on my experience on December 1st.

So why the sign with this peculiar warning? Is it actually legitimate, or is it designed to sooth the anxiety of people who dash onto the platform during those seconds between when a train’s doors are shut and when it actually starts moving?

No matter what the answer, it raises further questions, like are British train passengers that stupid versus German train passengers? Why is it I’ve not seen these kind of safety warnings in Germany, The Netherlands, France, Portugal, Czech Republic, or – even – Belgium?

3 comments to Overly Focused on Safety: Riding the Rails at Cheltenham Spa

  • You have to remember that until about ten to fifteen years ago, non-InterCity British trains didn’t lock their doors at all! All you had was a mechanical handle on the outside (yes, to open the door from the inside, you pulled the window down, leaned out and used the outside handle!) That meant that you could open the door on a moving train and jump on, though you’d likely get told off by a grumpy British Rail staff member if caught doing so.

    I wonder if people expecting to be able to open doors on moving trains is the reason for this practice?

    Scarily, some of this old rolling stock still runs on the British rail system, especially during peak times or when other rolling stock is out of action. Thankfully, they have now retrofitted automatic locking, though you still have to lean out of the window to open the door when at the station!

  • There’s nothing that indicates the severity of the accidents, either. Sprained ankle? Twisted finger? Cracked fingernail? And don’t forget that booze might have been a factor.

  • “…In the past year, 3 of your fellow passengers tripped on the stairs and had their head guillotined off in the train doors 40-seconds prior to departure…”

    Wow, I think it’s great they are warning people about this. This is an incredibly dangerous train station.